Individuals in today’s world, Nathan Myhrvold once observed, are sort of like single B-cells in the immune system who go about their business oblivious to what’s happening in an entire human organism with 1 trillion cells. Biology, Leroy Hood often likes to say, is becoming an information science built on units of A, C, G, & T in the place of digital 1’s and 0’s.
Many in the current era of specialization stay within their professional comfort zones, and never cross-pollinate their ideas with people from disciplines as divergent as computer science and molecular biology. But that’s not true of Myhrvold, the Microsoft Research founder who later started Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures, or Hood, the high-speed gene sequencing pioneer who now leads the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. These two big thinkers—who are featured speakers at an Xconomy event Monday at the University of Washington—are close friends who long ago saw the benefit of sharing what they are learning about IT and biology.
There are many connections between the two. Myhrvold, along with Bill Gates, is a member of Hood’s “President’s Council,” an informal kitchen cabinet of advisors to the Institute for Systems Biology. Myhrvold has given keynote talks at the ISB’s annual scientific symposium in which he has drawn analogies between the way the human immune system functions and the way societal networks operate (as mentioned above). Myhrvold is known for his omnivorous interests, and if you watch this video, you can see biology is one of them. This talk is specifically focused on how the human immune system spots infections, fights them off, and develops protective memory against future attacks. It’s not too hard to see how those concepts might be useful against computer viruses and worms, for starters.
Myhrvold, in an e-mail, said he first met Hood after Gates recruited him in the early 1990s from Caltech to start the molecular biotechnology department at the University of Washington. They’ve been working together informally almost ever since.
“Lee has been fantastic for Seattle, first at UW and then by creating the ISB,” Myhrvold wrote. “His mission is to peel back the lid of the black box of biology and peer inside to understand how biological systems work. Biological systems are obviously complicated but there is a strong analogy to the algorithms and electronic circuits used in modern technology. Lee’s approach has motivated some interesting discoveries. I’ve both invented with Lee, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him over the years.”
Hood told me he has participated in many of Myhrvold’s “invention sessions” over the years which bring together experts from a wide array of disciplines. Hood said he has also sought Myhrvold’s advice on how to raise awareness of the Institute for Systems Biology’s work in the academic and business worlds. And an IT focus is obvious to anybody who walks into the Institute’s offices: the place hums with high-powered gene sequencing instruments and computers that sift through vast amounts of DNA that make up the genome inside each living cell.
While they have some things in common, the analogies that Myhrvold is talking about are hard to follow at times, much less condense into a single story. But I figured I’d try to sum it up anyway after watching Myhrvold’s freewheeling 39-minute keynote to a bunch of biologists at the April 2008 Institute for Systems Biology symposium. He admitted at the beginning that the analogies are “bold and crazy,” and that he was taking a risk by talking about immunology concepts in front of a lot of people who know more than he does about immunology.
The human immune system, Myhrvold said, has evolved to do a few things very well. It provides surveillance of invading pathogens like viruses and bacteria; analyzes and synthesizes the information; acts on it in the form of an immune response; and stores the information in its memory so that we can quickly produce antibodies to fight off strains of, say, the common cold, that we have seen before.
That process is sort of like how individual biologists have acted independently throughout history. When an emerging pathogen stands out, like smallpox, HIV, or SARS, large numbers of scientists working independently conduct surveillance and perform analysis and synthesis of the body of information through peer-reviewed journals, which over time can lead to development of a treatment or vaccine. The knowledge is stored away in memory that’s passed down in medical textbooks. This is like a societal-level “greater immune system,” Myhrvold said.
The part that’s exciting now, Myhrvold said, is that the exponential growth of computer processing power has enabled knowledge to move so fast across traditional barriers of time and geography that scientists can make faster progress. It works by functioning in the context of a system of researchers around the world, who are pooling their knowledge in real-time.
There are still limits to how fast a biological experiment can go—if you give a cancer drug to a patient, you have to wait to see if the tumor shrinks. But more and more early-stage testing of drug candidates in the future will be done with “in silico” models to weed out winners from losers before scientists embark on the time and expense of clinical trials like the ones done today, Myhrvold said.
If Myhrvold were a hired consultant, he’d probably use some platitude about how it’s all about working in teams. But here’s one snippet of how he described the approach in his talk at the Institute for Systems Biology.
“If we view systems as systems, and look to optimize them, we’ll do enormously better than simply being a member of the system. Part of the reason I’m here to talk to you today is to wake you up and say, ‘By the way, you are all macrophages, and B-cells, and T-cells,’” Myhrvold said in the talk. “Just like those, you are not aware—the B-cell isn’t aware of its role in the grand scheme of things. Which is why when you have mistakes in the immune system, it’s also not aware it’s hurting you. With autoimmune disease, there’s no consciousness there. I claim that if we are conscious that we are all cogs in this machine, we might be able to do better.”
In this spirit of looking at the grand scheme of all things innovative in the Northwest, we’ve brought together Hood and Myhrvold to have an in-depth chat about “breakthrough ideas,” and to see a number of exciting projects that are outside of their direct comfort zones. Who knows what patterns they might find in the diverse group of entrepreneurs and researchers we’ve assembled from the worlds of computing, robotics, advanced materials, and healthcare delivery? We only have a handful of tickets left for this event, but we look forward to seeing you and many of our regular readers there on Monday afternoon.