Chemical biologist Shannon Miller develops innovative tools to address the biggest questions in the field of genetic engineering. She recently joined Scripps Research from Harvard University, expanding her work in how gene-editing systems can be delivered inside the human body to improve treatments targeted at genetic diseases.

Read on to learn more about Miller and what drives her interest in science, as well as how she finds artistic inspiration in the lab.

Shannon Miller, PhD

How did your upbringing shape your love for science?

My father was an engineer and so when I was growing up, he was the person who brought the science enthusiasm to our family. He was really interested in astronomy and that probably helps explain why our family are such big fans of science fiction stories like Star Wars and Star Trek. I think this was also balanced very well by my mother, who brought out the creative side of our family with different artistic endeavors. Inheriting that creativity from her has served me well, particularly during a difficult project in the lab where you need to come up with innovative solutions. The field of gene editing constantly requires these kinds of solutions.

How are you developing genetic tools in your lab??

For my PhD I worked on the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic system, which is a tool researchers can use to specifically target and manipulate DNA in a living organism. During this time, I was able to expand the portion of the genome that could be potentially edited by researchers, increasing the possibilities for new therapeutics.

But there is still a huge question in the field, which is, “how are you going to get these gene editing agents into your patients in a manner that is safe and efficient?” Now, as a Scripps Research Fellow with my own lab, this is precisely the question I’m trying to answer. Since gene editors tend to be very large molecular cargo, I’m concentrating on developing new tools that can help deliver them to the right place and reduce any toxicity or off-target effects. With the supportive environment for early-career faculty here at Scripps Research, I now have an exciting opportunity to tackle these big biological problems.

Given these challenges, where do you see the greatest promise for gene therapies?

Currently, a promising clinical research area is focused on disorders where you would be able to deliver therapies directly into that tissue. For example, hereditary blindness is an area of interest because you could make a local injection of gene products right into the eye. Another clinical research area centers on ex vivo therapeutics. This is where you would take cells from someone’s body, treat them with a gene therapy in a Petri dish and then put them back in the body. This is currently being used in the clinic to treat blood and immune disorders. That being said, I believe that the full strength of in vivo gene editing therapies will not be realized until we have robust methods to deliver these agents into the human body, and this is exactly what motivates my research. 

From trash to treasure:
500 used DNA sequencing
flow cells transformed by Miller
into office art.

How have you incorporated your science into some of your hobbies?

I’m really into mixed media art and I’ve managed to turn useless trash from the lab into some fun artwork. For example, to analyze gene-editing, we use high-throughput sequencing to identify changes in the DNA. We use these very small glass-like chips that bind to the DNA, read it and spit out your data. For the longest time, we were using multiple chips per day and just throwing them away. Then one day I decided to collect them and use them to make a mosaic. I took each individual chip, about 500 in total, painted it on the backside and glued them all together in the shape of a DNA strand. It’s definitely going on the wall of my new office.