Interview with Keith T. Gagnon
Keith T. Gagnon, Ph.D.
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
How did you become interested in the field of oligonucleotides?
I was thrown into the world of nucleic acid therapeutics during my postdoc with David Corey. My Ph.D. training focused on the biochemical structure-function relationships of RNA-guided enzymes. So before joining David’s lab I was only vaguely aware of the amazing and nuanced effects that chemical modifications could have on nucleic acid properties. My first project in the Corey lab was characterizing a large variety of ASOs that targeted the huntingtin repeat expansion. Since then I have been fascinated with the applications of chemical modifications, especially regarding RNA-guided enzymes, although admittedly I am quite dependent on the magical skills of my nucleic acid chemistry collaborators!
Who were your early mentors?
My Ph.D. advisor, E. Stuart Maxwell, had the greatest influence on me. He taught me a love and rigor for great science. He never let me get away with sloppy work. He instilled in me a drive for technical and creative excellence and has supported me throughout my career. I had a fellow graduate student in the Maxwell lab, Beth Tran, who I must acknowledge. Beth had a serious work ethic and a razor-sharp logic that I took as a blueprint. My postdoc advisor, David Corey, has of course had a tremendous impact on me. David has an eye for great science and will not tolerate mediocrity. What I learned the most from David was the business of science – grant writing, manuscript preparation, and managing a laboratory. David has been a staunch supporter of me and I can always go to him for sound advice. I have worked with some great people, but among those Jon Watts stands out as a great friend, an outstanding scientist, and a wonderful encouragement during our postdoc years together.
How did you become involved in OTS?
When I submitted an abstract to my first OTS meeting I was asked to give a short talk. This was a great experience and I loved the meeting. My postdoc advisor had been involved in OTS for years so I guess it was a natural progression for me. Now it is one of my regular meetings.
Why do you continue to support the OTS?
To me, nucleic acid therapeutics and RNA biochemistry go hand-in-hand. I want to help merge these two disciplines even more.
What is special about the type of research/work you’ve done?
The ongoing theme of my research has been RNA and ribonucleoprotein structure-function relationships. This focus gives my research a unique perspective to nucleic acid therapeutics. We use our approach, marrying nucleic acid chemistry with RNA biochemistry, to better understand the mechanistic rules for chemical modification of RNA-guided enzymes. This approach can provide new insight into controlling RNA-guided enzymes with engineering and chemistry and improve nucleic acid therapeutics. We also investigate the fundamental biochemical mechanisms of neurological repeat expansion disorders to look for opportunities for therapeutic intervention.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Free time? Well, whenever that does happen, I will often find myself with my young family doing whatever is on their imaginative schedule. I enjoy working with my hands, which includes mechanic work on the car or a construction project at home. I play basketball, love doing artwork, and enjoy reading. I also try to volunteer my time for local organizations and the community.