Eric Schadt, one of the world’s top researchers looking at how changes in the genome lead to disease, is leaving his full-time job as chief scientist of Pacific Biosciences to spearhead a new genomics research center armed with more than $100 million of financial backing at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
This new arrangement is being set up as a bi-coastal collaboration between Menlo Park, CA-based PacBio (NASDAQ: PACB) and Mt. Sinai, in which Schadt will divide time between academia and industry. Schadt will still be chief scientist of PacBio, helping craft company strategy, but it will be a part-time role. Schadt, 46, says he will spend about 75-80 percent of his time as director of Mt. Sinai’s new Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology, and as chair of the medical school’s department of genetics. His Mt. Sinai teams will seek to get the most bang out of PacBio’s fast new gene sequencing machines and tools made by rivals like Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) and Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE).
The union of PacBio and Mt. Sinai is a high-profile effort to bridge the traditional divide between lab research and clinical treatment of patients. For Mt. Sinai, hiring a star like Schadt means it will likely attract more donations, and be able to recruit many more bright young physicians and scientists interested in genomic-based personalized medicine. For PacBio, it hopes to learn how to best position its instrument with customers around the world, after hearing from Schadt how it works in the trenches.
And for Schadt, it gives him the chance to work on the inside of an ambitious medical system in the nation’s biggest city, which sees about 500,000 patients a year, giving it the potential to capture lots of biological samples from patients. Those precious samples, which can be hard to obtain and share in traditional academic settings, will be kept on electronic medical records in the Mt. Sinai system. The records will capture results of genomic tests, plus more traditional lab tests of disease. Those are dots that rarely get fully connected in today’s medical centers.
“This is enormous for us. If you’re not world-class in genetics, you can’t be a world-class medical school and academic medical center. By adding Eric, it assures we’ll be among the very best places in genetics,” says Dennis Charney, the dean of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. “We see Mt. Sinai being at the vanguard of the genomic revolution. When these genetic findings become actionable for medicine, Mt Sinai could be a major place that makes it all happen.”
Says Schadt: “This is the exact right thing I’ve always wanted to do. I won’t have anybody else to blame if I can’t pull off something significant here.” PacBio CEO Hugh Martin added in a statement: “With a strong commitment, shared vision, and extensive access to patient samples, we believe Mount Sinai is a perfect partner.”
Schadt, who I profiled in these pages in March 2009 and who was more recently written about in a 6,000-word piece by Esquire’s Tom Junod, made his name in biology over the past decade while at Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics unit in Seattle. There, Schadt and his colleagues published seminal papers that sought to go beyond the basic sequence of 3 billion chemical units that make up a human genome. Schadt and his colleagues tackled the immensely complex next step of trying to help explain what all those data points mean. The concept, sometimes called “network biology,” is about looking at faulty DNA and showing it causes faulty transcriptions of RNA, which leads to the production of proteins that go awry and cause diseases like cancer.
Schadt eventually left Merck in the spring of 2009, insisting that biology and the pharmaceutical industry couldn’t move fast enough to answer questions like this, as long as information is kept inside the proprietary walls of academia and industry. So, along with Merck’s senior vice president of cancer research, Stephen Friend, he co-founded Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit that is seeking to spark culture change through an open-source movement for biology. Schadt says he still remains involved with Sage, and that his new role with Mt. Sinai will put him in a position to provide more data that Sage wants for its open-source database.
By joining Mt. Sinai, Schadt and PacBio are walking away from a potential partnership with UC San Francisco, which had been wooing Schadt for months. It also raises questions about what will happen next for the New York Genome Center, a fledgling effort to bring together a number of New York’s top biomedical research centers to create a shared world-class genomics research facility. Mt. Sinai’s Charney said the New York Genome Center effort is still in its planning phases, and that “we’ll assess” how Mt. Sinai could be involved with such an effort over time.
The genomics institute at Mt. Sinai will have plenty of horsepower on its own, according to Schadt and Charney. The financial commitment over the next five to seven years is “well over $100 million,” Charney says. The institute will be led by 8-10 principal investigators, each of whom will have staff working under them carrying out technical functions such as handling sequencing machines, databases, and the computational work to make sense of the data, Schadt says.
The resources of Mt. Sinai are part of what attracted him to New York, Schadt says. Mt. Sinai is currently engaged in one of the biggest building projects ongoing in New York, which will be the new home of the Institute starting in the fall of 2012, Charney says. The facility is part of a more than $2.25 billion strategic investment plan at Mt. Sinai, which Schadt says is supposed to “transform research, and see how we can move this into clinical practice faster.” While UCSF had the same shared vision as Mt. Sinai, there was a greater amount of financial backing in New York, Schadt says. “It’s a pretty amazing transformation,” he says.
Charney says he personally “hit it off” with Schadt, and bonded over their shared competitiveness, and interest in fast decision-making and minimal bureaucracy. Schadt, who famously wears a white polo shirt and hiking shorts everywhere he goes, even in meetings with high-powered executives, was assured that he could dress how he likes in the more buttoned-down East Coast atmosphere. Schadt, who loves to snowboard, might also have to fly out West to get in some of that favored form of leisure.
“The West Coast is awesome, and it has great snowboarding, but it’s not as if Eastern seaboard doesn’t have anything going on,” Schadt says. “It’s an amazing city.”
One of the big attractions for Schadt in New York is the deep talent pool he can draw from. Schadt, who is trained as a biomathematician, is looking to tap into the industry of quantitative traders who use algorithms to help hedge funds profit in the stock market.
“These people mine monster amounts of information to make rapid decisions on important things,” Schadt says. “That kind of know-how is a valuable asset that hasn’t been as fully leveraged for genomics as it could be. That will definitely be one of my missions.”
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