When Dr. Patrick Paddison explains to his family what he does for a living, he favors a simple analogy: Imagine you've just been presented with a particularly exotic car and asked to figure out how it works-no blueprints included.
How would you go about pinpointing which parts, for instance, cause the engine to start? One good way would be to remove one component at a time and see what results.
At a basic level, that's what biologists like Paddison do—only in cells, of course, not cars—using a relatively new technology called RNA interference. RNAi, as it's known for short, allows scientists to switch off particular genes, creating the potential to determine which genes may be implicated in all sorts of diseases. Their hope is to spur more effective treatments for everything from cancer to HIV to degenerative brain conditions.
RNAi technology "has sort of been a revolution," Paddison said. "It has allowed us to address questions we wouldn't otherwise be able to address."
"We've gone from racks of test tubes to robotically handled multichambered plates, from looking at how single genes function to probing almost all genes simultaneously."
Growing up in New Orleans, he always felt a certain curiosity about the way things work but never had a passion for science, per se. At one point, he thought that he wanted to be a psychologist. A college neurobiology class changed his tack. "I was immediately hooked," he recalled.
After graduation, he landed a job as a research technician working for Drs. Lee Hartwell and Steve Friend at the Hutchinson Center. The seasoned biologists were using budding yeast cells to identify genes that determine whether a cell is dividing normally, leading to key insights about cancer, which arises from abnormal, uncontrolled cell growth.
The post was a formative experience for Paddison. Hartwell and Friend "set me on the research path I find myself on today," he said.
Today, Paddison and his lab are using techniques based on RNAi to target one primary question: When we look at the some 200 types of cells in the human body, what genes allow them to maintain their particular functions, identities and survival? With the answers, he hopes to find new gene networks to target for therapies for various illnesses and to learn more about how RNAi itself may be used to treat diseases like cancer.