Dan is similarly passionate about his research, directed evolution. This is the process of creating protein or other molecules with more desirable traits to help develop new treatments and cures.
“Hockey is Canada’s national winter sport. I played it every year when growing up in Battleford, a small town near Edmonton,” said Dan.
“The game is great fun to play. There’s end-to-end action and a real balance of finesse and physicality is required to get the puck into the opposition team’s net.”
In Sydney, Dan plays for The Buccaneers at his home rink located at Canterbury. His position is ‘centre’, one of the most energetic roles on the team, where he acts as chief playmaker setting up opportunities for attack.
“We play for fun but it’s something I really look forward to. Being on the ice is almost meditative for me. I’m so focused on what’s happening – the puck, my positioning and the constant movement of players around you. When you’re playing your mind is clear, making space for the next big idea.”
When it comes to directed evolution, Dan explains that this is achieved by speeding up the natural evolution process by artificial means in the laboratory. This involves repeated screening, selection and then replication of a specific protein to amplify the desired trait required.
“Developing proteins that are more potent or that can perform tasks in the body more effectively for example, allows them to be used as new therapeutics to help stop disease,” he says.
Dan is currently exploring two exciting areas of research. The first is a specific transcription factor (a type of protein) that is able to renew heart tissue in zebrafish. Although the protein doesn’t work in this way on people, he hopes to be able to ‘evolve’ the protein to potentially enable this function.
“Heart attack survivors suffer from permanent scarring of the heart muscle which places them at increased risk of other heart problems and death. If we could create a protein that could help regenerate heart tissue in people, we could end up saving a lot of lives.”
Dan is also looking at how the SARS-CoV-2 virus could change over time by taking the same directed evolution research approach.
“We’re running evolutions on the spike protein to see how mutations could potentially create new variants that may be of increased concern to people. We need to be prepared for virus changes before they become a reality, with this work potentially feeding into future COVID-19 health strategies.”