Lee Hood’s New Company Snags $30M to Spot Cancer and Alzheimer’s in Early Days

10/14/09Follow @xconomy

Lee Hood, the legendary researcher and entrepreneur who invented machines that made the Human Genome Project possible, has secured $30 million in venture capital for a startup that aims to detect cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s in their earliest and most treatable stages.

The new company is called Integrated Diagnostics, or InDi for short (not Integrative Diagnostics, as previously reported in government filings). The company has secured the first of three tranches of financing in a $30 million commitment from Menlo Park, CA-based InterWest Partners, the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, and Germany-based dievini Hopp Biotech holding, which is part of a collaboration with the government of Luxembourg, according to a statement.

Integrated Diagnostics, which we first reported on more than a year ago—and again last month when the first public financing document appeared—is working to create a new generation of precise diagnostics. These tests are being designed to take a pinprick of blood and spot signature proteins that are associated with tumors, or Alzheimer’s disease. If successful, this work has the potential to shake up the healthcare system in three big ways, Hood says. It will make it possible for doctors to diagnose diseases much earlier; it will open the door to more individually tailored therapies that will have much greater odds of success; and it will allow doctors to follow up with patients to see if treatments they prescribe are really working at the molecular level, Hood says.

The dream for this company is as bold as anything Hood has done before at more than a dozen companies he has co-founded.

Leroy Hood

Leroy Hood

“This is going to transform medicine,” Hood says. “My view is that P4 medicine—predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory—will emerge over the next five to 20 years, and this is the first step. This is going to be the platform in the initial days.”

The science behind this vision—which Hood and others call systems biology—seeks to go beyond the traditional study of one gene or one protein in isolation. Instead, Hood and his colleagues use high-powered computers to look at full networks of genes and proteins, and how they interact.

“We are optimistic that systems biology will become a critical tool in the development of personalized medicine and believe that Integrated Diagnostics is at the leading edge in this field,” said Julie Eskay-Eagle, head of The Wellcome Trust Health Care Investments, in a statement.

The founding intellectual property for Integrated Diagnostics comes from two main places—Hood’s lab at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and Jim Heath’s lab at Caltech in Pasadena, CA. Hood and ISB faculty member David Galas are contributing proprietary data on proteins that can be fished out of the blood, and changes in their concentration in the blood, which can offer up information on subtle clues when something’s wrong in any of the body’s 50 major organs. These proteins can also be used to specifically stratify patients with certain disease types, and monitor their progress and recurrence rates, Hood says.

Heath’s lab at Caltech is providing a microfluidic chip combined with a set of simple chemicals that are supposed to be more reliable and easier to make than the antibodies used on conventional diagnostics, Hood says. Done properly over time, this will allow InDi to run blood protein analysis in a matter of minutes, with a fraction of a drop of blood, for less than $1 per protein measured, Hood says.

Hood, 71, has a record of founding more than a dozen biotech companies, including some of the industry’s big success stories—Amgen, Applied Biosystems, and Rosetta Inpharmatics. As in those companies, one of the first orders of business at InDi (pronounced “In-dee,” like Indy 500) will be to recruit a founding CEO. Paul Kearney, the scientific director of special projects at the Institute for Systems Biology, is the president and chief scientific officer.

Whoever ends up getting the CEO job will go a long way toward determining where the company is based, Hood says. If the company decides on a CEO who will only do it in San Francisco or San Diego, then it’s possible the company will be based there, Hood says. “But I’m going to push hard to get it here in Seattle,” Hood says.

One of the big challenges the company will face is in showing correlations between certain concentrations of proteins in the blood, with symptoms of disease that only develop later in life. The company plans to run experiments to establish strong correlations, by comparing the blood samples that appear to be diseased with those that appear normal. I asked Hood whether this is going to take a long time, and face a lot of skeptics along the way who will worry about “false positives” which could prompt people to take treatments that really aren’t necessary.

“Sure,” he said. “You deal with the skeptics by showing them the data. When you show them the data, the skeptics eventually slink away in the background, never to be heard from again.” He added, “A lot of people don’t understand the revolution in medicine that’s coming. It’s actually already here.”

Partnerships with academic medical centers, and industry partners, will be important to the fledgling company, Hood says. InDi will also rely on data that emerges from an ongoing $200 million partnership between the government of Luxembourg and three U.S. research institutions—the ISB, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, AZ.

When I asked Hood if the ultimate vision is for every doctor to someday have one of these diagnostic machines on his or her desktop, like office workers have computers on their desktops today, he said that’s possible but maybe not how it will actually evolve.

“I’ll go one step further,” Hood says. “Whether we do that, or whether it’s a handheld device that transmits data via wireless technology, is open for debate now.”

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