Leroy Hood’s Latest Big Idea: Integrated Diagnostics, a Startup that Will Spot Tiny Cancers in Blood

9/26/08Follow @xconomy

Leroy Hood has a big idea for a new company. The legendary scientific entrepreneur, who invented the high-speed DNA sequencer that made the Human Genome Project possible, wants to develop a new generation of screening tests that are so precise at examining a drop of blood that they will usher in the era of what he calls P4 medicine—shorthand for predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory medicine. The startup would be called Integrated Diagnostics. It’s just one of many things Hood (an Xconomist) discussed with me in a wide-ranging interview this month at his office at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

“This company is going to transform medicine, I guarantee you,” Hood says.

Plenty of key details are still being worked out, like how much money the company is raising, what sort of intellectual property it is starting with, what sort of proof of concept exists, and who will end up backing it. Hood, who has co-founded Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), Applied Biosystems (NYSE: ABI), and Rosetta Inpharmatics, among other companies, said he expects to close the initial financing for Integrated Diagnostics within a couple months.

The new company is still keeping a low profile, and doesn’t have a website. It is being co-founded, according to Hood, by David Galas, a faculty member at the Institute for Systems Biology, who was trained as a theoretical physicist and is now a pioneer in computational biology. He is joined by Jim Heath, a chemist at Caltech, who is the inventor of two technologies that improve measurement of blood proteins, Hood says. One is a microfluidic chip that “will do for proteins what DNA chips did for messenger RNA or DNA fragments,” says Hood. The other is a set of simple chemicals Heath has developed to replace antibodies in diagnostic tests, which are hard to make and too unreliable, Hood says.

The vision here is that within five years, Integrated Diagnostics will have tests precise enough to diagnose emerging cancers so that doctors can combat them before people have physical symptoms, Hood says. Every one of the body’s major organs dumps unique proteins into the blood, which can give early warning signs of a disturbance in the body’s biological networks, Hood says. The company’s tests will allow doctors to separate patients into distinct groups to match their form of, say, breast cancer, with the most appropriate therapy. The work has been demonstrated in mouse experiments, Hood says.

Something similar to this early concept was bankrolled in 2005 at Accelerator, the Seattle-based incubator of life sciences companies. The company, then called Homestead Clinical, was supported by MPM Capital, Amgen Ventures, OVP Venture Partners, Arch Venture Partners, Versant Ventures, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities. That company hasn’t emerged from the Accelerator to raise more capital, and I didn’t have time to ask Hood in detail about what has changed to make Integrated Diagnostics such a compelling bet.

When the company is ready to talk in more detail, it will have to answer some big questions, like how it intends to go about the Herculean task of changing the culture of medicine from a reactive one that treats serious illness, to one that thinks first about catching disease before it shows obvious physical symptoms. Hood conceded that “this idea has been slow to catch on,” but it didn’t discourage him in the least.

“I think it’s going to be a company that spins off four or five other major companies before it’s finished,” Hood says.

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