Genetics and Collaboration

Lisa Hall-Anderson ’84 is on the forefront of Down syndrome research

Dr. Lisa Hall-Anderson ’84, P’21 grew up at HPA as the daughter of Pat and Howard Hall (longtime HPA math department chair). After receiving her B.A. in biology at Colorado College, and her PhD in genetics from the University of California, Davis, Hall-Anderson made her way to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where she has worked for the past 20 years both researching and teaching human genetics to first-year medical students.

Hall-Anderson has devoted the bulk of her research career to understanding the genetic underpinnings of X-chromosome inactivation in females and its possible utility as a gene therapy for trisomy diseases like Down syndrome. In 2013, she co-authored a landmark study with lead researcher Dr. Jeanne Lawrence, published in the journal Nature, on silencing the extra chromosome in Down syndrome patient cells. “We can do this,” she explains, “by taking a gene that normally shuts off the X chromosome, sticking it into the extra chromosome 21 in Down syndrome, and shutting off the expression. This basically completely corrects the Down syndrome cells.”

Although the process works, as Hall-Anderson explains, they are still far from being able to apply it in a clinical setting because gene therapy usually requires a virus to deliver the gene. “Viruses are fantastic about getting DNA into cells; they’ve evolved to do that,” she says. “So most gene therapy uses a kind of virus molecule to deliver the gene you want, but they’re delivering very small packages. Our gene is really big, so we can’t currently deliver our genes. So a lot of the work in the lab is trying to figure out, can we make it smaller? Is there another way to do it?”

I felt comfortable because HPA is testing, they’re contact tracing, they have places set aside for the kids to quarantine. … It sounded like they were doing everything that UMass med school was doing. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m good.’”

— Dr. Lisa Hall-Anderson on HPA’s COVID-19 safety protocols

The research team Hall-Anderson works with is specifically interested in delivering a particular gene into neurons, to help with the cognitive part of Down syndrome. And because she’s working at a major research university, she can draw upon the expertise of colleagues in tangential fields. “The nice thing about what we’re doing is that our lab doesn’t have to figure out everything about doing gene therapy for Down syndrome. We’re just working on the X-inactivation and getting the right size sort of thing,” she explains. “But there are other people at UMass that are working on viral delivery or working on agents that can get your DNA in or whatever. Other labs are helping to solve the problems that we’re running into. And they’re experts at that.”

This kind of collaboration among scientists has given Hall-Anderson hope throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With new data pouring in constantly from all over the world concurrently with rising cases, graduate students and researchers have supported their clinical colleagues by helping to analyze the data. “There were people who put aside the research that they had NIH grants for and used their time basically pro bono to help the clinical side figure out how to triage people. It was really kind of cool to see.”

And as data on COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus accumulates, the scientific and medical communities have been able to make their messaging and recommendations more accurate and precise. “That’s how science works,” Hall-Anderson says. “Science is a self-correcting thing. As we get more data, we gain more clarity.”

Given the mounting data on the pandemic, how did Hall-Anderson feel about sending her own daughter back to Hawai‘i this fall for her senior year at HPA? “I felt comfortable because HPA is testing, they’re contact tracing, they have places set aside for the kids to quarantine. … It sounded like they were doing everything that UMass med school was doing. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m good.’”