Feb 7, 2020

Meet Zheng Luo, 2020 Best Fellow

Awards, Trainees
Headshot of Zheng Luo
By Jovana Drinjakovic

Zheng Luo was half way through his PhD in China in 2016, when he read a scientific article published by the Donnelly Centre’s Blencowe lab that would prompt his move to Toronto three years later.

“After I was introduced to Ben’s awesome work, I started learning more about it and thought this is what I want to do for my postdoc,” says Luo, who joined the lab last April to study alternative splicing, a process allowing cells to generate vastly more protein variants from a limited number of protein-coding genes.

And now, Luo has been named the 2020 Charles H. Best Fellow—a prestigious appointment awarded annually to an outstanding postdoctoral trainee in the Donnelly Centre. Established in 2001, and named after Charles H. Best, who co-discovered insulin in 1921 as a young graduate at the University of Toronto, the fellowship provides support for postdoctoral researchers who have the potential to become leaders in their fields.

“It’s great privilege to be recognized by the Best fellowship committee,” says Luo. “The award will help me fulfill my research goals and it’s a great boost at this stage of my career.”

The focus of Luo’s research is how protein diversification thorough alternative splicing is regulated by the cell. When a gene is switched on, its entire message is copied into a transcript, from which some coding fragments, or exons, are spliced out and therefore not included into the translated protein. Whether or not an exon is included can modify protein function and impact health. This is especially the case in the brain, where altered splicing regulation has been linked to autism, schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

"The award will help me fulfill my research goals and it’s a great boost at this stage of my career” - Zheng Luo, 2020 Charles H. Best Fellow

The clues to which gene fragments are spliced in or out in different tissues are written in the surrounding gene sequences, known as the “splicing code”. While a lot of the splicing code has been worked out, including in a landmark work from Blencowe and colleagues published in Nature in 2010, recent research has revealed unconventional splicing events, whose rules Luo is working to decipher.

“While we and others have worked on the splicing code for many years, the rules governing the fidelity of this process remain poorly understood,” says Blencowe. “Zheng is applying a new approach to this problem that I believe holds tremendous promise.”

“His work should enable more accurate predictions of the consequences of different types of sequence variation on splicing.”

Luo brings to the project an extensive experience in computational biology gained during his PhD in a leading laboratory headed by Professor Li Yang, at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, CAS.

“My goal is to improve the splicing code by learning from different features in the DNA sequence how splicing maintains its high fidelity,” Luo says. “If we have a better understanding of splicing mechanisms directed by the code, that may allow us to develop new therapies.”

It's an ambitious project, but Luo has all the support he needs.

“I feel very fortunate to have Ben as a mentor,” says Luo. “He is not only a leader in the field but is also a very supportive.”

“He always encourages scientific discussion and the sharing of ideas which really helps my research.”

We thank The Charles H. Best Foundation for their continued support for this award.

Luo was selected as the best candidate by the fellowship committee co-chaired by Donnelly Centre investigator Charlie Boone and Research Program Manager Sara Sharifpoor, with Centre’s investigators Peter Roy, Andrew Fraser, Tim Hughes and Hannes Röst as members.

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