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Josh Tycko

Harvard University

Playing with his emo band in high school, Josh Tycko remembers giving his bandmates some bad medical advice. He was entranced by the possibility of building tiny machines that could heal tissues — and during their shows, he insisted, they didn’t need to wear earplugs. “If we damaged our ears, we would just fix it with nanobots in the future,” he said. 

In college, working in the University of Pennsylvania lab of gene therapy pioneer Jim Wilson, Tycko quickly realized that engineered viral vectors could do much of the work he’d imagined nanobots doing, delivering healthy genes that could restore function. Then CRISPR came onto the scene, and the young scientist became fascinated with the possibility of combining new gene-editing technologies with gene therapy. He bothered the brand-new team at CRISPR startup Editas until he nabbed a job right out of college.

After leaving Editas — he’s an “exitas” now, as the company likes to pun — Tycko turned his attention to epigenetic editing, developing a technique during his Stanford Ph.D. work to measure the effect of tens of thousands of protein domains on human gene regulation. That information can help to inform the design of future genetic medicines by controlling the expression of genes in cells. 

Instead of trying to over-engineer cures and treatments, Tycko thinks the future of genetic medicine will lie in using biological tools that already exist, like the activity-induced gene expression pathways he’s researching during his postdoc at Harvard. “You want to work with the cells,” he said, maybe even understanding cellular communication enough that we can simply send them messages in their own language. If that doesn’t work out, though, there’s always the nanobots.

— Katie Palmer