Born a Creationist, Merck’s Schadt Leads Open Source Effort to Unravel Genome

3/13/09Follow @xconomy

One of the world’s brightest minds at analyzing human DNA was born into a family of creationists. When he was 17 and graduating from high school in a rural area of southwestern Michigan, Eric Schadt couldn’t even imagine going to college.

“My parents were very religious,” Schadt told me on a visit to his office last week. They didn’t emphasize education, and neither did the community, he says. “Higher education just wasn’t something that people looked forward to there. I didn’t really know what college was.”

Schadt, now 44, and an executive scientific director at Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics division in Seattle, has traveled on a truly remarkable journey. One of his mathematical mentors at UCLA, Ken Lange, said Schadt reminds him of no less than the world’s leading mathematician who turned his curiosity to the riddle of the human genome—Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA.

“Eric Schadt is a real leader in the field of computational genetics,” Lange said in an e-mail. “He has published many seminal papers. He sees the big picture better than the vast majority of geneticists and inspires his co-workers to tackle critical problems.”

Whether Schadt inherited a gene or not for missionary drive from his parents, he’s going to need it. His most audacious goal yet, one that we described in this exclusive story for Xconomy last week, is to make biologists collaborate through an open-source style movement with an ultimate vision of helping develop more effective drugs. This is taking shape in a nonprofit organization, called Sage, which was seeded with $5 million in donations this month.

Through numerous publications in prestigious scientific journals like Nature, Schadt has played a key role at Merck’s Rosetta operation in the years since Lander and his peers sequenced the entire 3 billion letter string of human DNA in the genome in the 1990s and early 2000s. Schadt and his colleagues have worked on the immensely complex next step of trying to help explain what all those data points mean. The concept is about connecting the dots between faulty DNA, which gets transcribed into bad RNA, which can be linked to proteins that actually cause a disease like cancer. There has been lively debate raging among scientists online since we wrote this original story, about where it is all headed, and whether it’s worth all the money.

I decided I wanted to get to know the kind of person who would try to lead an open source biology movement, cutting against ingrained professional norms that keep biological ideas proprietary, not open. So I went to meet Schadt at his office in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

On first impression, you would never guess Schadt is the guy behind all those scientific papers. He is legendary … Next Page »

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