Biologist Leroy Hood sees humans as walking clouds of data, ripe for the taking when it comes to the future of medicine. Hood, who will address the Northeastern community on Monday at 5 p.m. as part of the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series, is the president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. He envisions a future in which our genomes, proteomes and medical records tell the comprehensive story of our past, present and future health.
In the early days of gene sequencing, it would have cost more than $100 million and taken about three years to map a single human genome. Today, it costs less than $10,000 and takes just days. And both of these numbers are still shrinking fast.
The human genome consists of just four molecules repeated 3 billion times. The pattern of that repetition distinguishes you from me, it determines what color hair we’ll have and what diseases we might contract throughout our lives. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, reading that pattern required radioactively tagged molecules and painstaking efforts.
When Hood introduced his automated DNA sequencer in 1986, he revolutionized the field. Over the next 17 years, he optimized the instrument, speeding up the process by 3,000 times and enabling the entire Human Genome Project. With such a record, you might think Hood would be content to settle down at age 74. But this is pretty much the opposite of what he’s been up to lately.
In 2010, he co-founded the P4 Medicine Institute to enable what he believes is the future of medicine. The 4 P’s referred to in the institute’s name stand for Predictive, Preventive, Personalized and Participatory. Like many of the network scientists at Northeastern, Hood sees human biology as a series of integrated networks—consisting of genes, proteins or small molecules, for example — the dynamics of which can tell us a lot about disease and health.
Next generation gene sequencing is basically thousands of automated sequencers working in parallel. In one project, Hood has used this method to sequence the genomes of mice with the neural degenerative disorder prion disease. Comparing the genomes of these sick mice with healthy ones allowed the team to identify 333 genes critical to the disease’s progression. Looking at how these genese interact with one another has allowed the team to account for “virtually every aspect of the cellular pathology of prion disease,” according to the Institute for Systems Biology’s website.
Hood sees this same approach as being the key to human health. Thanks to decreasing costs and increasing speed, each of us will have our genome sequenced in eight to 10 years, Hood says. This will effectively build all the disease networks relevant to our species. By knowing our personal networks, we’ll be able to predict what diseases we’re most at risk for. Knowing that can allow for preventative rather than reactionary medicine. If you know you’re at risk for some particular type of cancer, for example, you could take specific measures to detect and treat it much earlier.