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Gene Hunter
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Spring 1999
Gene Hunter
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"One of the things that's so special about Leena is she is absolutely fearless," says Dr. Edward McCabe, chair of pediatrics. "She's willing to move into new areas; she is confident that she can do it."

The timing of Peltonen's arrival couldn't be more favorable. Since 1990, an extraordinary federal research effort has been under way to map and characterize each of the 100,000 genes in the human genome - the set of coded instructions contained in our DNA that determines everything about us as individuals. Called the Human Genome Project, this scientific quest is of such far-reaching significance that it has been dubbed "the moon shot of biology." Scientists have already identified most of the genes through painstaking studies of the 46 pairs of chromosomes nestled in every human cell, but the function of many genes remains elusive.

For these gene hunters, an ultimate goal is to identify the gene or genes linked to certain diseases. Once they've done that, they should be able to understand the molecular basis for disease - what happens when the genetic instructions go haywire - and then provide much better diagnosis and treatment. It perhaps goes without saying that whoever unlocks these secrets will make history.

"The genome project has really developed the genetic tools that researchers can now use to tackle these genetic diseases or genetic predisposition to common disease," says Peltonen. "I don't think it's a hyperbolic expression to say that genetics will transform the way medicine is practiced in the future."

Her influence after just seven months at UCLA is apparent, and not just in the work being done in the porcelean and stainless steel laboratories. One morning in January Peltonen gave a tour of the Gonda Center, skipping down the stairs in her low-heeled pumps, and enthusiastically showing off three oil canvases that had been commissioned from a well-known Finnish painter.

They are hard to miss, positioned in a hallway in the same location on three separate floors. Each is about six feet high and four feet across. Abstract in style, they feel as though they are moving and expanding along the wall, like clouds drifting across the sky. The one on Peltonen's floor, titled Cloaked in the Cobalt of the Night, has a backgroundof deep-blue circular shapes with gray spirals intended to resemble cells and DNA.

On other aesthetic efforts, she was less successful. On a brisk walk through the bright, airy hallways, Peltonen points out long, comfortable window benches occupying a corner of each floor, designed to provide a communal space for researchers to talk and share ideas. Peltonen wanted all the benches upholstered in a snazzy, zebra-print fabric created by a Finnish architect. She got her wish only on the sixth floor, where her office is located. "So dull!" she pronounces with a playful smile as she passes the muted gray-blue upholstered seating on the fifth floor.

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