Entomologist Reddy has focused his career on developing environmentally sound pest management methods. In the process, he has developed technologies that have human health implications, including a gene switch that is in phase 3 clinical trials to fight cancer. In July, he assumes the role of chair of the Department of Entomology.
Q: How did you develop your interest in agriculture?
A: I grew up on a farm in India. My father grew rice, sugarcane, and cotton. Those require highly intensive pest control operations. People actually got sick, because they didn’t take the proper precautions with insecticide application. Watching that, I developed an interest in entomology. My goal has been to develop safer pest management methods.
Q: Tell me about your career path to UK.
A: After post-doctoral training at the University of Washington, I established a molecular entomology lab at the Great Lakes Forestry Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to control spruce budworm. I collaborated with Rohm and Haas Company, which was developing insecticides that mimicked insect hormones. They are much safer than regular neurotoxins, because these hormones are only present in insects. I went to that company’s Philadelphia research and development labs, where I got into gene switches. We used a combination of a receptor I brought from Sault Ste. Marie and chemicals discovered by Rohm and Haas to regulate expression of genes to kill cancer cells. After Rohm and Haas sold my division, I started looking for university work and came to UK in 2002.
Q: What is your latest work?
A: My lab is working with a new technology called RNA interference. We developed a technology where we can spray an RNA trigger to control the Colorado potato beetle. We published these methods first, though another company was working on the same project, and they applied for the patent a few weeks before us. It works well in beetles, but it doesn’t work in other insects like sucking insects or moths. We are trying to understand why. If we are able to cross that barrier, there will be more applications to follow.
Q: What achievements are you the most proud of?
A: For a scientist, it’s very pleasing to see your work regularly used. So the gene switch is one example. When I heard about the RNAi spray being commercialized, I was happy—even though I won’t be rich—because I was involved in developing that technology.