Lee Hartwell, at 70, Tackles Personalized Medicine, Education in Latest Career Phase

9/20/10Follow @xconomy

Lee Hartwell would be excused if he wanted to rest on his laurels at the age of 70 and enjoy the sort of retirement that you read about in personal finance magazines. Instead, he’s now setting out to do the most ambitious things of his career. He wants to change the way the world thinks about personalized medicine, help make the world a more sustainable place, and improve how children learn about science.

“I’m not a person who looks back,” Hartwell says. “I don’t tend to miss things. I look upon each stage as an experience and a learning opportunity. I came into this to learn about medicine, and it was an enormously powerful experience. Now it’s time to move on and use that knowledge.”

Hartwell made his name as a basic scientist; his fundamental discoveries about cell processes in yeast earned him the 2001 Nobel Prize. Then as the president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, he oversaw 13 years of growth and integration between basic science, clinical practice, and public health. Now that Larry Corey has been tapped as his successor, Hartwell is preparing for his next major challenge: chief scientist of The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, starting Oct. 1. He told me about his vision for the next chapter of his career when I recently visited his office in Seattle.

His vision is to create a new wave of precise and predictive diagnostic tests, based on systematic analyses of all sorts of proteins in the blood that could be early warning signs of disease. These tests will enable physicians to answer basic problems, like determining when an emergency-room patient’s chest pain is just garden-variety or an early warning sign for a heart attack or stroke. Armed with that kind of individualized knowledge, physicians would be able to make more informed decisions about patient care, saving resources that are currently wasted.

Many people see this as essential to fixing healthcare in the future, but Hartwell is looking through an even wider societal lens. He talks about how this more efficient model of healthcare will help the world focus resources on global sustainability, like clean air, clean water, or as he puts it, “maintaining the planet in a way that will continue to support human life.” One part of that vision, for which he plans to devote half of his time, will be about improving K-8 science education. Done right, it could help foster a new generation of more scientifically literate citizens who will help support those initiatives.

One of Hartwell’s peers, Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, said he expects big things from Hartwell’s new mission. Hartwell, he says, “approaches the … Next Page »

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