Stanford University researchers who study how to make products from plants and how the cell regulates its genes are among 19 scientists from 15 institutions announced as new Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators. The faculty members are Elizabeth Sattely, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Howard Chang, a professor of dermatology and of genetics.

Howard Chang

Howard Chang (Image credit: Steve Fisch)

HHMI provides each investigator with a full salary, benefits and a research budget over the initial seven-year appointment, which may be renewed for additional terms. The institute also covers other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment. With today’s appointments, Stanford now has 24 HHMI investigators.

“Every scientist is unique, but they all need one thing: time,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea in their announcement of the new recipients. “HHMI is dedicated to providing outstanding biomedical scientists with the time and resources to do their best work. We think of this as investing in people, not just projects.”

Gene regulation

Chang’s research focuses on understanding how small molecules attached to the DNA affect gene expression and coordinate cell fate and function, as well as on the role played by long noncoding RNAs and other RNA structures in biological regulation.

Noncoding RNAs do not code for proteins, and until relatively recently had been considered to be biologically inconsequential. But research by Chang and others have shown that these molecules, particularly long noncoding RNAs, or lncRNAs, are critical to many processes, including those involved in normal development and cancer.

“I am delighted and honored to receive the HHMI appointment,” said Chang. “HHMI’s long-term support will allow us to pursue high-risk and high-reward projects that may take a long time to pay off. The flexible funding of HHMI will also allow us to pursue new technologies and ideas as they emerge about how to control genes to enhance human health.”

Chang is the director of the Center for Personal Dynamic Regulomes at Stanford, and the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Genomics. He is a core investigator at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at Stanford. He is also a member of Stanford’s Child Health Research InstituteCancer InstituteNeurosciences InstituteChEM-H and Bio-X.

Products from plants

Elizabeth Sattely (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

Sattely’s work involves engineering plants to produce molecules that can enhance human and plant health. Plant-derived products account for nearly 10 percent of WHO essential medicines, as well as dietary and renewable energy options. Despite the importance of plant-based molecules, scientists haven’t always applied what they know of plant biology to expand the range nutritional and medicinal products available from plants.

“The merger of engineering and plant chemistry promises a great leap forward in terms of how we use plants,” Sattely said. “By identifying the genes that make up plant metabolic pathways, we’re making the first step towards engineering new chemistry.”

Sattely’s multi-disciplinary research combines chemistry, enzymology, genetics and metabolomics. Her lab identifies properties in rare or endangered plants that are suitable for medicinal or nutritional purposes, then engineers those properties in plants that are more readily accessible and cheaper to manufacture. Through this work, Sattely and her team are generating cost-effective solutions for medical treatments like painkillers and chemotherapy drugs.

One example is in the mayapple, a rare Himalayan plant that contains a chemical used to produce etoposide, a chemotherapy drug that treats various forms of cancer. Sattely’s team developed a way to engineer the chemical found in mayapple in a common tobacco plant, potentially creating a less expensive and less time-consuming way of producing the vital drug.

Sattely is the recipient of numerous awards, including a NIH New Innovator Award in 2013, a DOE Early Career Award in 2015 and a DARPA Young Faculty Award in 2018. She is a faculty fellow at Stanford ChEM-H, a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator and an HHMI-Simons Faculty Scholar.