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Highlights in Chemical Biology

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Interview: A systematic future?

19 February 2007

Leroy Hood talks to Katherine Vickers about Google, prions and the human genome project.

Leroy HoodLeroy Hood co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, US, where he is currently based. His laboratory focuses on questions at the heart of systems biology, how gene families evolve and immune systems develop.

Who or what originally inspired you to become a scientist?

I guess there were several things. I grew up in Montana, where my father was an electrical engineer for the mountain state telephone company. Very early on, while I was still in high school, he got me involved in the courses he taught on topics like electronic engineering. 

During my last three summers of high school I worked at a summer camp that was managed by my grandfather, a geology camp in southwestern Montana for students from Princeton and Yale, and I ended up taking courses with the students that went out for that. 

And finally, at high school; three of the best teachers I ever had were math and science teachers. They started me thinking seriously about a career in science. One of them was instrumental in persuading me to go to Caltech as an undergraduate, and that's where my career in science got started seriously.

What is systems biology?

The idea of systems biology is actually very old. 150 years ago people were interested in homeostasis, and that's the idea that you look globally at a system, not just at one protein or one gene at a time, to understand how it functions. But what's new today is that we can now do global analysis of many types of information, for example genomes, RNA, (in theory) proteins, metabolites and things like that. We're also learning how to integrate different levels of such information, which will help the understanding of systems.

What research projects are you working on at the moment?

"We've developed a much deeper understanding of the kind of changes that occur in prostate cancer, and from these studies we've developed totally new, very-early-on blood diagnostic approaches to detection. "
We're working on a series of projects to do with new technological developments. So, we're working with collaborators making nanotechnology devices that we hope, in five years time, will be able to quantitatively measure a thousand blood proteins from a fraction of a droplet of blood. 

We're collaborating with a company called Helicos BioSciences Corporation with single strand DNA sequencing, and I see this as the gateway to preventive medicine in the future. Each individual will have their genome sequenced and that will be the basis for future health predictions. 

And then we're working on a series of microfluidic devices that will let us analyse single cells, and I think an understanding of single cells is going to be one of the next frontiers in biology. 

On the systems biology end we're very interested in using systems approaches to study disease. The disease we've studied for the longest time is prostate cancer. We've developed a much deeper understanding of the kind of changes that occur in prostate cancer, and from these studies we've developed totally new, very-early-on blood diagnostic approaches to detection. 

One of the major projects we're working on is prion disease in mice. We want to look at the dynamics of the disease and to see how the biological networks and cells of the brain actually change in correspondence to the pathophysiology of the disease. We found that some of the early diagnostic tests we discovered for prostate cancer are going to work for this infectious disease as well. 

The other thing we're doing is developing a series of computational analyses. One example will let us analyse the blood molecular fingerprint of specific organs in mice and humans. From those measurements we can actually deduce the nature of the disease perturbed networks in the corresponding tissues.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge you've faced in your research career?

I would say that managing science, rather than the science itself, has been the biggest challenge. New ideas really need new organisational structures and it is often the newer generations of scientists that are more open to these new ideas. This was the motivation behind setting up the Institute for Systems Biology.

You were involved in the start of the human genome project. How do you think this has influenced science today?

Yes, I was involved, mainly because of our DNA sequencing machine, and was supportive of the start of the genome project. It brought about DNA arrays, promoted the idea of systems biology, and the realisation of the importance of computation and technologies in biology, and the view of biology as an informational science.

How far do you think we are away from personalised and predictive medicine?

"We will see a big change in the way we practise medicine and today's medical students are probably being taught incorrectly."
Very close. In the next five to ten years we will have powerful tools for analysing individuals' genomes. There will be billions of measurements made on each patient, and then the problem arises of how to handle all this data. This is something we have approached Google and Microsoft about and we will be working with them. We will see a big change in the way we practise medicine and today's medical students are probably being taught incorrectly. Medicine will become digitalised and this will probably reduce the cost of healthcare and provide better allowances for the developing world. People are going to be living more actively in their 80s, and changes will need to be made in society to reflect these changes.

One final question - if you weren't a scientist what would you be?

I think I would be a writer, that's something I've always been interested in. But actually if I'm honest I couldn't imagine being anything other than a scientist.

Related Links

Link icon Leroy Hood's homepage
at the Institute for Systems Biology

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