Gene editing is invaluable in correcting mutations like the one that causes sickle-cell anemia. But biologists need better ways to get DNA and other ingredients into cells. Typically, the gene-editing recipe is introduced by viruses, which can have dangerous side effects, or during electroporation, a technique that uses strong electrical pulses and kills many of the cells in the process.
Lasers offer a gentler alternative, but those methods have had their own drawbacks. The lasers used have typically been very powerful and expensive, and capable of injecting only one cell at a time—too slow for clinical applications.
Nabiha Saklayen’s innovation was to design nanostructured add-ons to the laser system that deliver pulses of laser light to large numbers of cells at once, making it possible to dose them with gene editors at clinically useful speeds. Her process doesn’t require an expensive laser, though it took her a while to convince other researchers and her advisor that relatively cheap ones were powerful enough. “It doesn’t matter to the cell,” she says.
Saklayen has now founded a company, Cellino Biotech, to commercialize her idea and use gene-editing tools to engineer cells.
Trained as a physicist, she is unusually comfortable with moving between scientific fields, including laser physics, nanomaterials, and synthetic biology. She credits her upbringing in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Germany, and Sri Lanka with her adaptability. “I’m comfortable in new places, and at the interface of
different fields,” she says.