skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXII, No. 24
November 26, 2010

next story

Whole New IT Needed
Hood Predicts a Medicine Based on Preserving Wellness

On the front page...

When Dr. Leroy “Lee” Hood says that the future of medicine will be characterized by four P’s (predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory—and yes, former NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni seems to have coined the expression around May 2006, substituting “pre-emptive” for preventive), it’s best to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he and colleagues invented the technology that made the Human Genome Project possible, a feat he predicted, among other places, at a talk at NIH in 1990.

On the basis of his track record alone, it’s safe to spot Hood the fifth P—prophetic.

Leader for the past decade of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Hood addressed an NCI seminar at Natcher Bldg.’s Kirschstein Auditorium on Oct. 2. If there is a more committed believer in the power of technology to transform health care, NIH has yet to meet him or her.


  Dr. Leroy Hood  
  Dr. Leroy Hood  

Hood’s 70-minute talk covered three topics: systems biology (on the 10th anniversary of ISB, a little crowing was in order—the institute now boasts 13 faculty, 300 staff, has spawned more than 70 similar groups worldwide and, by one study’s measure, ranks first in the U.S. and third in the world in high-impact papers in the field), emerging technology (Hood seems to know where the smartest work is being done and was quick to credit cutting-edge biotech companies—one could imagine audience members quietly filing away investment options) and the new P4 medicine that will emerge within a decade as information technology blossoms in “cloud computing” that will put billions of useful data points, almost like a halo, around the heads of citizens.

“The real grand challenge,” he said, adopting a phrase that both NIH and the Gates Foundation use to discuss Big Science projects, “for all of science and technology is complexity. How do we deal with it? It turns out that biology has really effective ways of dealing with complexity.”
The real grand challenge for all of science and technology is complexity,” Hood said. “How do we deal with it?”

The real grand challenge for all of science and technology is complexity,” Hood said. “How do we deal with it?”

Discussing the fundamental principles of systems biology, Hood said biology itself “is an informational science” with two components: the genome, which is digital information, and the environment. Their combined output is what we know as phenotype.

He said systems biology seeks “a holistic, global view toward analyzing data,” but acknowledged that with massive data sets fed by high-throughput technology, the signal-to-noise problem becomes enormous. But there’s an app for that, he suggested.

What Hood is after is data so robust that it becomes “predictive and actionable; in other words, you can do something about it.”

He said medicine must embrace a new cross-disciplinary culture in which engineering, mathematics, physics and computer science are as essential as biology and chemistry. “We’ve got to learn each other’s languages,” he said, and adopt teamwork as the new laboratory norm.

Hood said he has spent the entire first decade at ISB trying to develop a cross-disciplinary culture. “It is critical to create an infrastructure that allows any biologist to use any kind of high-throughput technology,” he said.

To Hood, disease “arises as a consequence of a disease-perturbed network.” His institute has spent the past 6-7 years studying neurodegeneration in mice, carefully working out, in 8 inbred strains, exactly what goes wrong, and when, and where, in animals infected with prions. ISB scientists have applied the powerful mathematics of “subtractive analyses” to weed out effects not due to neurodegeneration in the mice.

“Mapping the temporal progression of disease offers a variety of opportunities for drug intervention,” Hood said. “No single drug will work; the approach must be multifaceted, depending on the stage.”

He envisions blood diagnostics becoming “the key to P4 medicine,” offering a window into health and disease. There are sophisticated new microfluidic-based protein-capture chips being developed that are capable of thousands of measurements. A patient 10 years from now might have a small amount of blood drawn twice a year and be presented with a fairly confident assessment of his/her health risks.

Hood outlined four large technology-driven projects that currently occupy ISB staff: whole-genome sequencing of families in order to identify disease genes (65 families affected by Huntington’s disease are currently being studied); the Human Proteome Project; development of clinical assays for patients; and HGP II, the second Human Genome Project, which will amass the explosion of entire human genomes being churned out worldwide and mine it for disease-causers.

Hood believes that within 5-10 years, having one’s genome decoded will be common. He thinks the systems approach will also be used to make vaccines.

“In the next 10 years, the focus will be on wellness, not disease,” he said. “But it will take a new scale of IT.” The P4 motto “Wellness quantified, disease demystified” has already attracted the state of Luxembourg in Europe, which has given ISB $100 million over 5 years to develop a beta version of P4.

“I have infinite faith that a deep understanding of biology can deconvolute the complexity we are encountering,” Hood said. “As a wise man once observed, you have to go through complexity to get to simplicity.” NIHRecord Icon

back to top of page