Skip to content

Biology is a complex matter

Today’s grand challenge in medicine and biology is complexity, according to world-renowned systems biologist Lee Hood, who addressed the Northeastern University community on Monday in the fourth installment in the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series.

“How we deal with complexity is absolutely paramount,” Hood told more than 200 students, faculty, staff and university leaders in attendance at Raytheon Amphitheater.

Historically, science has taken a reductionist approach, looking at the individual parts — such as a single protein or molecule — that make up the whole. But to fully tease apart biological complexity, Hood explained, we must understand how the parts interconnect as well as the dynamics of those interconnections.

In opening remarks, host President Joseph E. Aoun labeled Hood as “a disrupter.” That’s because in Hood’s 40-year career, the co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle enabled several paradigm-changing disruptions. He developed ground-breaking technologies like the automated gene sequencer, which enabled the Human Genome Project as well as the contemporary, high-throughput approach to biology. He implemented the first cross-disciplinary department in the nation (molecular biotechnology at California Institute of Technology) and created the field of systems biology.

Today, Aoun said, Hood continues to disrupt: “The future of medicine is going to be totally different because of what he has done and because of what he is doing.”

Hood believes that in 10 years, every one of us will have our genome sequenced and that a drop of our blood will provide a “window for health and disease.” By mapping our personal networks of genes, proteins and molecules, Hood said, we will be able to predict and prevent disease. Add participation to the “three Ps” of personalization, prediction and prevention, and we’ll see a shift toward what Hood calls “P4 Medicine.”

“P4 medicine will have profound implications,” he said. It will significantly reduce the cost of health care by allowing for earlier disease diagnosis. Patients and diseases will be stratified, such that we will know how individuals will respond to certain medications based on their personal “network of networks.”

Leroy Hood (left) greets Alex Hochberg CIS’16 (right), and Kristofer Patel S’16 (center) during a reception following the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Leroy Hood (left) greets Alex Hochberg CIS’16 (right), and Kristofer Patel S’16 (center) during a reception following the Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Prior to the talk, audience members watched a lighthearted short film in which Aoun tried to clone himself using gene mapping and cloning. Ultimately, he wasn’t too successful. “I need Lee,” Aoun said.

Over his career, Hood picked up a few lessons, which he offered to attendees. For one thing, he said, we need to fundamentally change how we teach. We also need to combat the anti-intellectualism and anti-science movements that have become pervasive in our nation.

The paradigm changes that Hood’s work enabled were each initially met with enormous skepticism, he recalled. But each wound up fundamentally changing how we now think about biology and medicine. To reach that point, he said, new organizational structures first needed to be created.

“Old organizations have bureaucracies that have been honed by the past,” he said. “They are barely capable of dealing with the present and they cannot deal with the future.” Similarly, if we are to meet the complex challenges now facing us, we will need unique approaches.

Following Hood’s talk, he fielded questions on the intricacies of implementing his vision from members of the audience and via social media.

The Profiles in Innovation Presidential Speaker Series is designed to bring the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship. Previous speakers include iRobot CEO and co-founder Colin Angle, airspace sculptor Janet Echelman and David Ferrucci, the principal investigator on the IBM team that created the Watson supercomputer.