Leroy Hood’s Institute Gains Momentum, Nine Years After Starting with “Crazy” Idea

2/13/09Follow @xconomy

Leroy Hood says when he left the University of Washington in late 1999 to start an institute of multi-disciplinary team of scientists to study what he called “systems biology,” people snickered, saying “it was just a crazy way to raise money.”

Almost a decade later, the work of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology still baffles a lot of people, even some very smart biologists I know. But Hood says it has carved out enough support to continue growing in the midst of an economic downturn. He made those comments in downtown Seattle this morning during a wide-ranging talk that was part of the Technology Alliance‘s Science & Technology Discovery Series.

The Institute for Systems Biology now has 14 faculty members, 230 employees, and an annual budget of $35 million, Hood says. The Institute’s budget is leaping ahead to $55 million this year, thanks to the first installment of a five-year, $100 million grant from the government of Luxembourg. This tiny European nation has thrown its financial resources behind Hood’s method of using high-powered computers to study networks of genes, and how they interact, rather than the traditional ways of biology that Hood says are too narrow, looking at one gene, or one protein in isolation. He says the holistic approach of studying entire biological systems will lead science down the path to a historic attitude shift from reactively treating disease to what he calls P4 medicine, or predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory medicine.

“Your physician will not think of you in terms of your diseases, but in terms of mediating your wellness,” Hood says.

As always, the indefatigable 70-year-old pioneer of high-speed gene sequencing packed a lot of information in this talk. Here are some of the highlights:

—On the P4 medicine vision: People will carry around a handheld device that extracts a pinprick of blood that will run analyses of tiny amounts of signature proteins in the blood. It would serve as early warning signs of a biological network that’s been thrown out of whack, and threatens to morph into a disease. It could tell you the status of your current immune defenses, whether you have any ongoing infections, and offer clues to all your previous exposures to pathogens, and your susceptibility to future bug exposures. The data would be sent to your doctor, who reviews it with you. “Physicians will be grand integrators of information,” he says.

—On politics: “The problem with most politicians is they are one or two-trick ponies,” Hood says. “We need a systems politics that recognizes mankind’s 10 or 15 biggest challenges.” He adds that President Obama “comes closer to a systems politician” than any he’s seen in a long time, and he even added. “If I was 10 or 15 years younger, I’d love to run for office just to see if this could work.”

—On the growing acceptance of systems biology: About 150 scientific centers around the world are now devoted to systems biology, although none are in medical schools. The nation’s top 5 medical schools have largely resisted the new approach, although the next tier down is showing interest, out of motivation to be leaders in the future, Hood says.

—On education: “Kids are much more malleable than adults. Adults can be intractable.” Hood said he is having talks with Hollywood producers to help think of ways to open the minds of many adults to the wonders of science.

—On information technology demands of the genome era: “In 10 years, we’re going to have billions of data points on each of you. The question is how do we develop IT to handle it all?” He said he’s had conversations with Bill Gates about this question, although they haven’t come to an agreement on the best way to tackle the problem.

—On advancements in diagnostics: He says he and collaborator Jim Heath of Caltech are working on a way to make diagnostic tests that are more reliable than existing antibody-based tests, and more stable. “You can put these reagents in the trunk of your car in Pasadena and leave them there all summer, take them out in the fall, and they’ll still work fine,” he says. These tests will be able to pick up minor disturbances in gene networks that sometimes occur after patients take a drug, like Pfizer’s atorvastatin (Lipitor), which could tell patients when to quit taking the drug, he says.

—On management. “When you have a fundamental paradigm change, the question is can you ever realize it in an existing organization?” Hood says. “Rarely, unless you have an exceptional organizational structure.” Later on in the talk, he repeated one of his favorite mantras. “New ideas need new organizational structures.”

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