Computational biologist Sheng Li joins The Jackson Laboratory

Sheng Li, Ph.D., a scientist who develops computational tools and studies cancer epigenomics, has been appointed an assistant professor at The Jackson Laboratory.

Li comes to JAX from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, where she is an instructor of bioinformatics working in cancer epigenome dynamics and will join the JAX Genomic Medicine faculty in Farmington, Conn., in October.

“My lab aims to understand the inner workings of cancer cells — the genetic and epigenetic heterogeneity (diversity) that drives cancer initiation and progression,” Li says. “My ultimate goal is to help devise new therapies to attack cancer cells effectively with the power of big data.”

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. Epigenetic processes can switch genes on and off, resulting in cellular and physiological trait variations in an organism.

“In many cancers, epigenetic plasticity and the heterogeneity in cancer cell populations provide alternative ways for cancer cells to adapt and evade therapy,” Li says. “I would like to measure not only millions of cells, but very specific cells that are resistant to treatment, and attack them — to eventually benefit patients.”

Li says she was drawn to computational biology and bioinformatics by the emergence of next-generation sequencing technologies. These tools enable scientists to spell out the entire biochemical order of the genetic molecules DNA and RNA in an organism with increasing speed and decreasing cost.

“Next-generation sequencing technology enables paradigm shifts in basic and translational research,” Li says. “It enables scientists to effectively and accurately measure the complexity of cancer cells on the whole-genome scale and has great potentials in clinical utilities. I am fascinated with the power of computational and statistical approaches to discover the lesions and vulnerabilities in cancers.”

Li says she was attracted to JAX by its collaborative research environment and focus on data-driven genomic medicine, as well as its research facilities, genome technologies and patient-derived xenograft (PDX) mice — engineered mice that can carry implanted human tumors, allowing scientists to test potential cancer therapies for individual patients.

Li has a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China and a Ph.D. in computational biology from Cornell University.