Perry Hackett believes the greatest advances in science have been based in serendipity.
That’s no surprise, as Hackett, Ph.D., professor of genetics and cell biology in the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences, has seen firsthand how an unexpected discovery could lead to a game-changing medical breakthrough.
While working on a project to bolster and support game fish populations in Minnesota waterways, Hackett spotted a dormant version of a genetic sequence called a “transposon”—which can “jump” from one location in DNA to another. Most modern transposons, however, have lost their jumping ability over millennia from gradual genetic mutations.
Hackett and his team pieced together DNA sequences from ancient fossils and modern fish to bring this transposon back to life after 14 million years. The result was the Sleeping Beauty Transposon System, a gene transfer platform that can be used to reprogram the human immune system to find and attack cancer cells.
The system holds potential to help a wider range of cancer patients than the previous immunotherapy method, called CAR T cells, which instead uses a disarmed virus to boost the strength of a patient’s cancer-fighting T cells.
“The Sleeping Beauty Transposon System has matched the results of the viral studies, and there are reasons to believe that Sleeping Beauty may be preferable—not only for price and variability, but also for potential effects,” Hackett said.
Sleeping Beauty has opened an entirely new window of therapy that has the potential to improve the health of millions. In the process, the discovery has helped make Minnesota the destination for genome engineering—the state now holds the highest concentration of genome engineering companies in the world. The discovery has also helped launch gene editing companies in other fields, such as agriculture, and has been used in basic research by thousands of researchers across the globe.
See Hackett describe his serendipitous discovery:
In 2017, Hackett received a U of M Innovation Award for the discovery of Sleeping Beauty. The award, given by the Office of the Vice President for Research and UMN Technology Commercialization, recognized his innovation’s broad, positive impact on global society and its improvement to quality of life. Up to 80 percent of people who receive therapies based on the technology experience disease remission or complete recovery.
In 2016, two biotech companies licensed a cancer treatment involving Sleeping Beauty to pharmaceutical company Merck for nearly $1 billion.
Learn more about how the U of M brings discovery to Minnesota’s doorstep.