Hyderabad: Scientist Leroy Hood is best known for bringing engineering to biology—something that changed the way biologists work. He developed instruments such as protein and DNA sequencers and synthesizers as well as ink-jet technology for synthesizing DNA chips. Currently president of the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle, US, he says he grew up with the biotechnology industry but it appears that, in some way, it is the industry that has grown up with him.
He was the catalyst in the founding of several companies: biotech bellwether Amgen, instruments maker Applied Biosystems and a dozen other speciality companies. At 69, one would assume his entrepreneurial energy and scientific vigour are waning but Hood is charged up for his next venture which he says sums up his lifetime’s work and could prove to be a bigger success than Amgen. All his efforts are now channelled towards a new concept in medicine called P4—predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory. Recently in Hyderabad for a talk at the Human Genome meeting, Hood spoke on how education can change the way medicine is practised and delivered. Edited excerpts:
Your P4 concept talks of “participatory” medicine. Given the level of science understanding among the public, how do you expect people to understand molecular biology and be a participant?
Go-getter: Hood has been the catalyst in the founding of several biotech firms—Amgen, Applied Biosystems—and a dozen other specialty firms. Seema Singh / Mint
There are many dimensions to participation. We need to create very powerful information technology tools that would aid people in collecting information.
There are two types of television—public and commercial. If you have to deal with education effectively, you got to deal with commercial TV. I’ve been talking to people in Hollywood to create a programme...create cartoon characters around scientists to show how passionate and involved they are in dealing with human life. Such things will influence public consciousness.
I also think computer games are a superb way to learn and teach. If you can get the film industry to focus on this, the educational reach could be transformational. But if you don’t have basic education, as is the case with India, then you have a much bigger problem. Frankly, I think India’s education problem is almost entirely political.
What is the fundamental difference between the old and new concepts in biology or medicine?
Biology is traditionally understood in description but in reality it is about information—how the body processes information using its biological networks. I am writing a book on biology as an informational science and I hope people use it even in social sciences and humanities. If you think about medicine that way, you’ll have intuitive solutions.
Personalized medicine is trickling in but not in the way we had predicted. Did we get too optimistic with the Human Genome Project?
Yes, we did. Genomic medicine is an infinite misnomer. The human genome gave the parts list of genes and proteins but if anyone thinks he can make predictions from genome, he is wrong. We need to integrate this digital data (from the genome) with the environmental data (how the environment impinges on the body) and that’s where the systems biology approach comes into play—holistic, as opposed to atomistic—using mathematical and computational tools, new measurement and visualization technologies.
We have wasted enough time and money in large genome centres and huge genome-wide association studies. They use a lot of money, create much hype and raise expectations. They should all have a sunset clause so that they can start all over again with new sets of problems.
Are you still developing tools?
We are building little chips that will measure 2,500 blood proteins which will allow us to study the state of organs in the body..., one organ at a time. We are developing approaches so that we can study an individual cell and deduce from it a person’s past immunologic history. In other words, we are moving towards single-cell analysis (most analyses today are made on millions of cells; the best ones use a few thousands of cells). We are able to measure 35 proteins today, but we want to scale up to 2,500 proteins. There are technical problems in that but we are working on them. For instance, we are creating a new chemistry that would replace antibodies as protein capture agents.
Will this spin off another company, just as your work on DNA sequencing led to Applied Biosystems?
Yes, we are starting a new company, which is, as of now, called Integrated Diagnostics but may morph into some other popular name. It will pick up the early warning systems in the body to predict diseases before they manifest. Actually, it’s much more than diagnostics and will have a lot of intellectual property.
How will it be funded?
The state of Luxembourg is our strategic partner and we have lined up some select venture capitalists. The fund raising, $70 million (Rs329 crore) in the first tranche, will be complete by mid-October.
So that will make the number of companies you’ve founded…
It is. between 15 and 20; the most successful ones are Amgen, Applied Biosystems and Rosetta Inpharmatics. Actually, I had none of them fail, the small speciality ones went into mergers. But I think Integrated Diagnostics will be more successful than Amgen. It is the sum of everything I’ve done in my...career. It’s my vision and I’ll make sure it gets done right.