Special Q&A with Gosia Trynka, Open Targets Experimental Science director

Life at Open Targets Mar 10, 2020

Open Targets will turn six this year and we celebrate this milestone with exciting news for the Open Targets community: the appointment of our new Experimental Science director, Gosia Trynka.

Gosia joined the Wellcome Sanger Institute in 2014 as the head of the Immune Genomics team and in 2016 she became one of the leads of Open Targets experimental projects in Immunology, results of which were recently published in Nature Genetics.

Gosia now oversees the experimental programme at Open Targets, with projects ranging from functional characterisation of inflammatory bowel disease through single cell transcriptome profiling in systemic lupus erythematosus patients to CRISPR screens in cellular models for neurodegenerative diseases.

Gosia’s breadth of experience positions her to take our partnership to a bright and successful future. We caught up with Gosia for a very special Q&A.

First of all, congratulations on your new role as Experimental Science Director at Open Targets. You’ve been working with us on various projects since 2016, but what first attracted you to starting to work with Open Targets?

My passion for translational research started during my PhD when I was leading the analysis of large GWAS studies for coeliac disease. At the end of my PhD, I remember a meeting with coeliac disease researchers, from immunologists to clinicians, where we shared the results of our work describing 39 novel risk loci outside the HLA. I felt disappointed that there was little interest in functionally pursuing these associations. To all of us it was clear that the task was challenging but the translational value of GWAS results was obviously worth the efforts to me. Since then, my research has been centred around experimental and computational approaches to translate GWAS variants to function. When I started my group at Sanger, I came across the project proposal call for Open Targets and it instantly made sense to seek partnership with industry; it was a natural home.

One of the most exciting and unique aspects of Open Targets is its exceptional “brain mass”. Our community includes around 350 researchers, coming from different backgrounds: geneticists and experimental scientists at Sanger Institute, computational biologists and data scientists at EMBL-EBI, the diversity of experimental scientists and clinical collaborators from EMBL, University of Cambridge, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, Oxford University, King's College London and Imperial College London, and scientists from GSK, Biogen, Takeda, Sanofi and Celgene (now BMS) - all bringing slightly different perspectives for target identification and prioritisation. Nowhere in the world exists such diversity of scientists all dedicating their time to thinking about one shared goal: ways in which we can leverage genetic data to better inform drug discovery. If we take each of the partners individually we will never be able to capture such breadth of expertise.

Image credit: Vika Lebedeva-Baxter.

What should the Open Targets community expect from your new role as Experimental Director?

I will oversee and further develop the experimental arm of the Open Targets research programme. It already is a very vibrant programme including projects spanning across a wide range of experimental assays and cellular models with a common goal: to generate new data to causally implicate the role of targets in disease. We will continue to innovate our approaches to identify and prioritise drug targets. The community can expect more of the development and application of cutting-edge genomic techniques at scale to systematically profile targets in disease relevant contexts.

How do you see the science at Open Targets developing over the next 5 years?

Partnership between academia and industry is central to harnessing the shared expertise required to transform drug discovery. Over the past six years Open Targets has provided an ecosystem in which our community delivers world class science. We have already seen the power of this collaboration across both experimental and informatics projects in generating valuable publicly accessible large-scale experimental datasets and integrated data platforms.

To answer your question, the next five years will integrate more of the Open Targets experimental data into the Open Targets Platform and Open Targets Genetics. We will see an increase in sophistication and precision in our ability to perturb biology and model disease. Through our Validation Lab we will be in a position to take the results from our projects to devise experiments that will provide additional line of evidence in support of target, truly propelling our work towards new therapies.

Your appointment has had an extraordinary and exciting response on Open Targets Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as on your own Twitter; what role do you think social media has in increasing the visibility of our experimental output?

It has been overwhelming; I am thankful for all the kind messages I received and I am delighted to receive so much support. Social media is a great place for rapidly sharing the latest scientific outputs. I often find out about important papers and released datasets when they are shared by scientists on some of the social platforms. Having Open Targets on social media outlets such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube helps us to disseminate our scientific outputs rapidly within the community. Uptake of our results is important given our commitment to publicly releasing data in order to transform drug discovery across the whole community.

Tweet from Gosia Trynka from 5 Feb 2020: I'm delighted to announce that I have joined @targetvalidate team as Experimental Science Director and I look forward to working more closely with the fantastic Open Targets community. opentargets.org. Follow up tweet: I should add that the Trynka lab is not shutting down, the opposite, with these closer links to Open Targets we will continue our research efforts @sangerinstitute to translate genetic variants to functional impact on immune system to inform new therapies.

Social media also provides an important platform for engaging with the next generation of scientists, something that is very important to ensure longevity of our field and work.

Alongside all of this, not only will you be leading our Experimental programme, you also will maintain your research group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. What can we expect from your group over the next few years?

The overarching goal of the research in my group is to link genetic variation to function in the immune system and to identify how these effects predispose to the development of immune mediated diseases. The immune system plays an important role across a range of diseases and in our research we seek to identify shared and disease specific mechanisms. We use a broad range of approaches, from CRISPR perturbations in cell lines and primary immune cells to large scale single cell transcriptomic profiling in health and disease. We dedicate a lot of time to thinking about designing the best cellular in vitro models, such as co-culture systems, that allow us to reproduce the disease relevant context in a dish.

Of course, there are research projects in my group that are independent of Open Targets; however the past few years have shown that a substantial proportion of our research has translational ambition and it naturally closely aligns with the Open Targets vision. I have no doubt this trend will continue; in fact, I am really excited to see how my increased activity within Open Targets will further shape the research in my group. I have already noticed a change in my own thinking as well as that of my group.

Through my dual role, I also hope to promote translational research among my colleagues at the Sanger Institute. I think we are living in one of the most exciting times for translational research and in the next ten years we will see a real expansion of genetically informed therapies.

With your dual role now and the many collaborations it will entail, we expect your free time will be more precious than ever before. What do you love to do in your spare time?

Indeed, my calendar has been getting filled up very quickly and it is important to me that I maintain a healthy work-life balance. I like to be active so you can find me in a gym doing high intensity workouts or weightlifting. I also love photography and being outdoors. I am currently getting a motorcycle licence and I can’t wait to start going on road trips with my partner once it gets warmer.

This blog is a contribution by Gosia Trynka, Alice Mann and Denise Carvalho-Silva. If you are interested in collaborating with us, please get in touch.