Molecular biologist Nevan Krogan is racking up accolades for his research on future pandemic threats, including spearheading an international research collaboration that mapped how SARS-CoV-2 hijacks and rewires cells.
His work led to antiviral drugs that are in clinical trials and a flood of research funding, including $67.5 million from the National Institutes of Health and $9 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The director of the Quantitative Biosciences Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, Krogan won the first Discovery Innovation Health prize last month from the science advocacy group Research!America.
Erin spoke with Krogan to learn where his research collaborations are headed next.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tell me more about the Quantitative Biosciences Institute and its focus on bringing scientists together.
In January 2020, we were the first group to clone out all of the SARS-CoV-2 genes. And then we tweeted, “Hey, we have them. Happy to send it to whoever wants them.”
We sent out these pieces of DNA to over 400 labs in over 40 countries in a couple of weeks.
What did this pandemic-era collaboration teach you?
We learned how different technologies fit together in ways we didn’t even know. Different disciplines, too: We had biochemists and chemists and structural biologists working together. They’d never done that before.
Did that lead to any research insights?
The problem with science is that we’re too siloed. We don’t see these connections.
You have the virology institute, then you have a cancer institute.
But if you can employ these kinds of unbiased approaches, you can start to see overlap. The same types of genes being mutated in cancer are hijacked by HIV. The same genes being mutated in autism are hijacked by Zika.
In that case, what’s next for big discoveries?
We’ve learned a lot during the pandemic and moved very quickly in large part because we’ve all been collaborating. The question is, can we keep the infrastructure and the spirit alive? Why can’t we move this fast on breast cancer and Alzheimer’s and heart disease and Parkinson’s?
We can do this, and we will. This is a silver lining of the pandemic.