Advancing personalized health: an interview with Jacob Corn

Jacob Corn (photo: ETH Zurich)

Personalized medicine is changing the way clinicians approach diagnosis and treatment by tailoring therapy to individual molecular and genetic profiles. While the idea of tailored medical treatment is not new, this medical model is rapidly evolving as new technologies are developed.

Jacob Corn, Professor of Genome Biology at ETH Zurich, is working to advance personalized medicine by exploring processes that detect and repair damage to DNA and using these findings to repair, switch on or off, or replace genes in the genome at a defined position. Through the professorship, the Swiss science and technology university is participating in an effort to establish and advance the field of personalized health and technology via a national initiative. The professorship — a partnership with ETH, in cooperation with the Lotte und Adolf Hotz-Sprenger Stiftung — is enabling the study of the functional elements encoded in complex genomes through comparative analysis, seeking to deepen our understanding of how genetic variation in the human population is related to disease susceptibility.

Ruben Garcia Santos of the NOMIS Foundation (NOMIS) sat down to talk to Corn (JC) about his new role at ETH, his switch from industry to academia, his research goals and the future of genomics, a growing field that is gaining tremendous public attention.

NOMIS: Welcome to Zurich! You moved your family and your lab to Switzerland and have been on the job for a few weeks now. How are you finding the new location and research environment?

JC: Zurich is great! It’s the perfect combination of city, culture and outdoors. ETH has also been outstanding. Everyone is very welcoming and the scientific atmosphere is incredibly stimulating. I’ve had so many wonderful conversations about possible collaborations in a very short amount of time. The possibilities are very exciting.

NOMIS: What inspired you to join ETH?

JC: My wife and I had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost two decades and were looking to shake things up. It was important to us that our new home offer just as much in terms of scientific excellence, a progressive social environment and access to nature and the outdoors. We looked at many places, but Zurich was an incredible blend of everything. Also very important to me was the public nature of ETH. In the United States there can be a big difference in resources available to public versus private universities. But I believe that outstanding education is a natural right for everyone, not just those who can afford it. ETH offers the best of both worlds: world-class facilities and resources for research, paired with equal access. I am still amazed at the incredible things students have access to at ETH!

ETH Zurich

NOMIS: What do you hope to achieve through your professorship at ETH?

JC: Genome editing is already changing biological research. It has spread very quickly and I hope to further increase access to this exciting technology to other groups. This will let them answer their own research questions at speed, without bottlenecks. Of course, genome editing also shows a great deal of promise for the treatment of genetic diseases. I am committed to helping doctors learn more about what genome editing might be able to do for their patients, and to work with them in advancing genome editing tools toward the clinic. Some diseases are getting close to possible therapies, while others are still very far away. There is still much to be done!

NOMIS: You are no stranger to working in multidisciplinary teams or leading transdisciplinary research projects in academia and in industry. What lessons have you learned in terms of challenges and critical success factors in collaborative research that could be applied to this innovative, interdisciplinary endeavor at ETH?

JC: Diversity and trust are key in any environment, but especially in science. Diversity yields different opinions, different expertise and different life-views. Putting these differences together leads to creativity and exciting solutions to difficult problems. But with diversity, one must be able to trust that you can share your thoughts; they may be quite different from those of your colleagues. It’s important that we can trust each other to listen and consider one another’s opinions carefully, and receive constructive feedback in a way that not only makes us more confident but also more productive. My research is most exciting when it’s filled with many different kinds of scientists, who talk openly among each other to solve difficult problems. It’s the same in research as in life.

NOMIS: You began your career in academia, moved to industry, then returned to academia in 2010. What was it that brought you back to academia?

JC: I loved my time in industry for several reasons. I felt a strong connection to patients, whom my research was trying to help. The concreteness of the research was very appealing. But when next-generation genome editing was starting to be developed, I was given a very special opportunity by Jennifer Doudna at UC Berkeley to be part of a scientific revolution and start an academic institute. These opportunities don’t come around very often! It was clear to me that genome editing was going to completely revolutionize research and also the treatment of genetic diseases. We are at the edge of incredible breakthroughs. Someday genetic disorders that have been with humankind for millennia may be as easily treated as a broken bone. But this is not guaranteed, and there is still a lot of very important and difficult research to be done.

NOMIS: Where do you expect to see the greatest advancement in our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of genetic diseases and their treatment in the next years?

JC: Personalized medicine is advancing to the point where patients can now have their genome sequenced. This still does not happen very often, but the future is clear. But what happens after the genome is sequenced? If you see a problem, how do you do something about it? Very rapid and personalized genome editing could address this problem by creating personalized treatments for individual genomes. But there are many issues to be ironed out, such as proving safety for each treatment, figuring out medical manufacturing for a treatment that will only be used by one person and so on. As I keep saying, these are exciting times with still a lot to do!