Breakthrough imaging methods are helping researchers across disciplines understand how cells evolve.
Andrew Adey, Ph.D., is currently developing and deploying single-cell technologies to profile a variety of properties of the epigenome, the chemical compounds that modify the genome in ways that tell it what to do, where to do it and when to do it.
Adey, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics and member of the Knight Cancer Institute, the Cancer Early Detection Advanced Research center and the Knight Cardiovascular group, is applying these tools to study neurodevelopment as well as cancer biology. We sat down to talk about his background, the focus of his work and why creativity is so important in technology development.
What led you to becoming a scientist?
I was always a tinkerer, taking things apart and putting them together to see how they worked. My parents thought I’d be an engineer. I had a great high school biology teacher who really incited my interest in a framework of systems – he was interested not just in the parts, but in what and how the parts do.
What’s the focus of your research?
I’m still very interested in parts and what they do. My mission is to understand the fundamental mechanisms of gene regulatory control, and what the means for the cell, and the tissue more broadly. The intricate mechanistic level of exactly what these parts do.
It’s a very systems biology approach, we want to know what a specific property is doing for the cell — it has to be there for a reason; evolution is very efficient. If something is there, it’s there for a reason; what is its impact of that in relation to the other things that are there, at the molecular level.
That’s really the foundation — the biology we’re interested in. What part does what, what can it do, and then to try and get it to do something else.
Tools in the Adey Lab are disease agnostic, and currently are being applied to study neurodevelopment as well as cancer biology.
In a way that is completely disease, tissue and even organism agnostic, we’re really interested in those fundamental mechanisms — if you can understand those, you can have that knowledge and insight into any space where something is going wrong and take it in new directions.
There’s been a turning point lately. We’d been working on understanding the parts, but we didn’t have the tools to provide the power we need at the single cell. Now we’ve moved from being able to look a cell from every angle to being able to perturb, or poke, from every level. We are working on technologies to examine a whole array of different properties to see how everything is working together.
Because our tools and technologies are disease agnostic, we work with partners and collaborators across the university. When I was considering coming to OHSU, it was very important that the scientific community here is so committed to collaboration. It was palpable — and collaboration is fundamental to the success of my lab.
What are qualities you look for in collaborators?
“Creativity and persistence are two of the most important qualities in technology development; you’re developing something no one has ever done before.”
There is a lot of creativity in the basic sciences that people often don’t see. That’s perhaps the most important quality when you’re doing technology development. It takes abstract thought to be able to envision something new, something that hasn’t been done before, and you have to think of lots of approaches to get to a particular place.
One of the most exciting parts of all this is going up to the white board and brainstorming ideas and being in that space.
Talking to commercial partners, I say I want this to be openly available information, and they say they have no problem with that. I no longer see commercializing a discovery as standing in contrast to not commercializing a discovery — the two can definitely coexist.
The degree to which collaboration and teamwork are really important is not something most people may think about, and I’m incredibly lucky to have an absolutely phenomenal team. They are at all levels of their careers — from graduate students and postdocs to senior scientists — and they all have that passion for that tinkering, which is really at the core of this project.
It takes a lot of creativity for these projects to work — you have to think through alternative pathways or approaches to get somewhere. In technology, there may be six different pathways to get to our goal and you need to be able to be willing to have some directions not work out.
Creativity and persistence are two of the most important qualities in technology development; you’re developing something no one has ever done before.
Can commercialization and basic open science coexist?
“I no longer see commercializing a discovery as standing in contrast to not commercializing a discovery — the two can definitely coexist. It is not either/or.”
We’ve developed tools, for instance, to profile properties at the single-cell level, some of which are notoriously difficult to profile. We’ve developed some really creative and exciting tools, and I want to make sure anyone can replicate what we’ve done without having to buy a kit. Not all labs, however, want to take that on. There is a commercial space for labs that want to use the technology but want to get up and running with it right away, without the development time.
What we’re doing with OHSU Technology Transfer is taking some of these technologies into this space. There will be commercially available kits for those that want to get started using the technology, while still retaining the option for people to homebrew it themselves using our detailed protocols.
Talking to commercial partners, I’m very clear that I want this to be openly available information, and they say they have no problem with that. I no longer see commercializing a discovery as standing in contrast to not commercializing a discovery — the two can definitely coexist. It is not either/or.
Commercializing the technology with a kit and publishing complete protocols each have important roles in advancing science.
How will the Faculty Excellence Award help your lab?
This award is so cool because it’s funding a concept; it provides funding with the level of flexibility we need. You can’t submit an NIH grant for a project that needs a lot of flexibility and accommodates twists and turns.
The goal of my lab is to develop platforms to fundamentally understand gene regulation and I collaborate with a lot of groups – from cancer to neurology. We develop these disease-agnostic technologies that can provide insights in so many areas. As a result, this award will really help all the projects we’re working on and fuel all of our partnerships.
The research here at OHSU is so phenomenal and the researchers are really breaking new ground — for me to work with them is like being in a playground of science.