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Profile of Andrew Paterson

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Dr. Andrew Paterson

Dr. Andrew Paterson, MD

  • Senior Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology
  • Associate Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
  • Canada Research Chair in Genetics of Complex Diseases

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
I was born in the United Kingdom.

I studied at the Glasgow University in Scotland. I studied medicine but also took an intercalated Bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. An intercalated degree is an additional honours degree which is offered to medical students who have completed three years of the MCChB (similar to an MD in North America) course. This allows a student to select a basic science option and additional in depth training on top of their medical training. In total, it is seven years of training.

2. What are you researching right now?
I actually work on lots of things in my research. My main research project is trying to identify genetic variations that are associated with differences in how people with Type 1 diabetes control their blood sugar.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
R.A. Fisher (1890-1962) who is known as the ‘father of quantitative genetics’ would be my favourite scientist. I admire him for his leadership in the field of genetics and particularly for his work on analysis of genetic variation. He developed a lot of the models for understanding the normal variation of measures that are continuous in the population. He performed many, many experiments throughout his career to establish these models. Some were as simple as measuring height in families and looking at how height was correlated between different relatives in a family. He looked at the whole distribution in a population and was able to make conclusions about what proportion of that variation is influenced by genetic factors.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
The sequencing of the human genome is the most important scientific breakthrough. This breakthrough provides us with tools to answer questions that would be extremely difficult to answer without the sequence. It makes our lives so much easier. This breakthrough happened in my lifetime and I benefit from this in my lab everyday.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I am an avid cyclist, mainly road cycling. I recently rode in a charity event, Ride for Sight. It was a 140 kilometre course from Downsview to Collingwood. Proceeds from the event went to The Foundation Fighting Blindness. Generally I enjoy cycling paths, but getting out of the city is my preference.

I also very much enjoy woodworking and usually make simple furniture that shows off the beauty of the wood.

6. Why science?
In high school, I was very interested in physics and math and I thought of biology as a ‘soft’ science. When I went on to medical school, genetics was probably one of the ‘hardest’ and most physically-based topics we that we studied which interested me most. I found that in some cases, genetics provided the most concrete and obvious explanation for the cause of a disease.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids has a world-renowned track record in human genetics.

When I was doing my intercalated degree in neuroscience, I began working on this particular gene as a summer project. I had the opportunity to come to Toronto to work with a scientist who had actually cloned that gene. I came back a number of summers to work in his lab and began to really like Toronto. I did my post-doctoral studies at the University of Toronto and ultimately chose to apply for a position here at SickKids. In 1999, I became a research associate and became a scientist in the Research Institute in 2001.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
What is the public health impact of having whole genome sequence from individuals? The general assumption is that giving people information will improve their health or quality of life. However it is possible that giving people certain genetic information may in fact have some detrimental effects on their quality of life.

What concerns me most, would for example, be a case where someone was told that they were at reduced risk of developing a disease, it may actually change their behaviour in a bad way, putting them at increased risk for other diseases.

It kind of fits into the whole question of evidence-based medicine or public policy. A lot of people make the assumption that everyone having their own genome sequence is going to be a good thing. I think we actually need some evidence to show that that is really the case, and that it doesn’t have harm. Or if it does, that we have ways of detecting that harm and mitigating it.

To put it in the big picture, even if we had whole genome sequence for $1,000 per individual, it is unlikely that most people in the world could afford that. So, relative to other public health endeavours, is this something worthwhile to do?

9. What are you reading right now?
I just finished reading a book written by Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The book is entitled, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine. I enjoyed the book and feel that he does a very good job of explaining very complex things at a level that is understandable to people that are not medically or biologically trained.
I do have some disagreements with some of his arguments, but I definitely learned some things from reading this book.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I have a few tips for success. First of all, find something you are passionate about and try to understand everything that is known about it. Never be complacent in your thinking and always be self-critical.

August 2010

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