William Skarnes to lead cellular engineering at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine

William Skarnes, Ph.D., an expert in stem cell engineering who began his career studying mouse developmental genetics, has been appointed director of cellular engineering at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

Skarnes comes to JAX from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, a non-profit genomics and genetics research organization near Cambridge, England, where he led the organization’s stem cell engineering team.

“We are very fortunate to have Bill Skarnes join our team, to enable the research of how specific genetic variants affect the function of different cell types and ultimately contribute to human disease,” says Charles Lee, Ph.D., FACMG, scientific director and professor at JAX Genomic Medicine. “Bill is a leading authority in stem cells and genome editing and his expertise will surely strengthen the research being conducted in laboratories throughout the Jackson Laboratory.”

In his new position at JAX Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn., Skarnes will be responsible for establishing efficient methods for genome editing of human stem cells and protocols for the differentiation of stem cells into a variety of disease-relevant cell types.

The advent of powerful genome-editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 are “opening up new and exciting opportunities to carry out genetic studies in a model cell,” Skarnes says. “Human stem cells provide the ideal platform to study basic cellular and development processes in humans.”

One research priority will be to improve methods to coax human stem cells into becoming blood stem cells that are capable of long-term reconstitution of the immune system in mice. Mice with a “humanized” immune system would allow scientists to study the genetics of human immune cell function in a living organism.  

Skarnes, who grew up near Boston, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in microbiology and immunology from McGill University in Montreal and in 1992 was awarded a Ph.D. in molecular and medical genetics from the University of Toronto, where he pioneered gene-trapping technology in mouse embryonic stem cells. Gene trapping is a high-throughput technique for introducing insertional mutations across the mammalian genome.

Following his postdoctoral training with Rosa Beddington at the University of Edinburgh, Skarnes was a group leader at the BBSRC Centre for Genome Research in Edinburgh.

In 1997, he became an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where his laboratory demonstrated the value of large-scale mutant embryonic stem cell resources for gene-based, phenotype-driven screens in mice. With colleagues in the Bay Area, Skarnes initiated the BayGenomics program, the first large public gene trap resource.

In 2003, Skarnes joined the Sanger Institute, where he led teams that established a high-throughput pipeline for the production of thousands of targeted gene mutations in mouse embryonic stem cells for the European Conditional Mouse Mutagenesis Program and the Knockout Mouse Project. This cell resource is the foundation for ongoing efforts by the International Mouse Phenotyping Consortium to elucidate the function of all 20,000 genes in the mouse.

Though he won’t begin working at JAX Genomic Medicine until October, Skarnes will be no stranger to the Laboratory. “As a mouse developmental geneticist by training, JAX has always held a special place in my heart,” he says. “It will be an honor to be one of the JAX family.”

He already has been collaborating with JAX Senior Research Scientist Steve Murray, Ph.D., providing Murray’s lab in Bar Harbor with constructs for the generation of transgenic mice.

When he arrives in Connecticut, Skarnes plans to collaborate with scientists at JAX Genomic Medicine, UConn and Yale. “I see plenty of opportunities for productive collaborations with scientists both in Farmington and in Bar Harbor as well as the Connecticut area,” he says. “I expect many collaborations with faculty who wish to use engineered cells for their research projects.”