Scientist profile: Leroy Hood

The inventor of the DNA sequencing technique, and Albert Lasker Awardee, embarks on the next big challenge.

Leroy Hood cofounded an institute to develop a way to tailor medical treatments to each individual person.

Lee Hood/Institute for Systems Biology

For Leroy Hood, everything is connected. After inventing a machine that helps decode DNA, Hood spent a lot of his long, rambling career trying to combine all branches of science, from biology and physics to engineering and computer science. His invention made it possible for scientists to identify all the genes in human DNA as part of the Human Genome Project.  

Leroy Hood (right) accepts the Kistler Prize for helping to link the human genome to society. Credit: Lee Hood/Institute for Systems Biology.
Leroy Hood (right) accepts the Kistler Prize for helping to link the human genome to society. Credit: Lee Hood/Institute for Systems Biology.

 In 2000, he left his research job at a university to cofound the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. There he and his colleagues look at the human body as a huge network of interlocking circuits, from the blood to the brain.

Hood wants to use an all-connected way of looking at bodies to transform the way people think about sickness. In his vision for personalized medicine, instead of going to the doctor only when something is wrong, everyone would keep constant tabs on their health through mobile technologies that monitor the body down to the protein level.

Hood, a 1987 recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, and who in 2007 was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, recently spoke with Science News for Kids.

Lee Hood (far right), recipient of a 1987 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. Other award recipients: Philip Leder (left), Susumu Tonegawa, and Mogens Schou (next to Dr. Hood). Mary Lasker is in the center. Behind her are Michael DeBakey, who was then Chair of the Lasker Awards Jury, and James Fordyce, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
Lee Hood (far right), recipient of a 1987 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. Other award recipients: Philip Leder (left), Susumu Tonegawa, and Mogens Schou (next to Dr. Hood). Mary Lasker is in the center. Behind her are Michael DeBakey, who was then Chair of the Lasker Awards Jury, and James Fordyce, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Lisa Grossman: How did you first get interested in science as a kid?

Leroy Hood: My father was an electrical engineer in Montana. I think through that I had a natural interest and aptitude for science. But I think three things happened that really programmed me in that way.

One was my father taught courses for the Mountain States Bell Telephone men, and he liked to have me take the courses. It was all about circuit design and all these fancy things. At the time I really resented the courses, but I will say I learned a lot, and it did influence how I thought about biology.

My grandfather built and managed a camp in the Beartooth Mountains in southwestern Montana for summer geology students, and I worked there three summers taking courses with them. I used [one of the courses] as a basis for the Westinghouse Science Talent [Search] project, and I was one of 40 kids that got to go to Washington, D.C. I actually went all the way across the country on a train by myself. It was an enormously exciting adventure. It gave me an exposure to a level of sophistication in science that most kids just didn’t ever get.

The final event was having a really superb chemistry teacher my senior year [of high school], who asked me to help teach freshman biology with him. I did it by teaching out of Scientific American. One of the articles I read was an article on the structure of DNA. I think this was in ‘56 [three years after the double-helix structure of DNA was discovered]. I’d really been leaning somewhat toward geology, but after I read that article I decided anything that has a molecule like this must be incredible. So I decided I was going to go into biology then.

Do you think that any of the other activities you did in high school — football, acting, debate, music — had an impact on the way that your interest in science developed?

I’ve always had broad kinds of intellectual interests in a lot of different things. That’s certainly been true in my career in science. One of my philosophies is you should change careers every 10 to 12 years and start out completely fresh in something new. You learn an enormous amount, and you get insecure again, but then you bring fresh new insights and a perspective to problems.

Do you have any siblings, and have they influenced your path at all?

I am the oldest. I have a sister who is a year younger and a brother who is two years younger than she. And then I had a much, much younger brother who turned out to have Down’s syndrome. He lived with us about a year and then went to a home, where he had actually an incredibly healthy, productive life. It sounds ironic, but he did very well.

Did having a brother with a genetic disorder spark an interest or have any impact that you can tell consciously on your interest in disease?

I did read about it at the time, and it did get me interested in a very preliminary way in genetics and things like that. I can’t say consciously I can point to that, but I’m sure it did have an impact, because I did try to understand what had happened.

You said earlier that the circuits class that your father had you take influenced your thinking about biology. How did that work?

When you think about biology as an informational science, one of the basic things you realize is that our cells have biological circuits that deal with a vast amount of information. If we’re going to understand how biology works, and likewise how disease works, we have to understand the nature of those circuits. Those circuits have some interesting parallels to the electrical circuits I learned about back in 1954.

You’ve worked a lot at combining biology and technology. What challenges have you faced in doing that?

The first challenge I faced was early in my career at Caltech. I was in a biology department, and I think the biologists there felt it was unseemly to have engineering in biology. They recommended I be moved out of the department.

As a result of making the automated DNA sequencer, I realized we had to bring into biology scientists of all flavors, not only biologists but also chemists and computer scientists and engineers and mathematicians and physicists. In the late 1980s, I went to the president of Caltech, where I still was, and tried to persuade him that I should start a new department of applied biology and have this cross-disciplinary bent. He was enthusiastic, and the chemists and engineers were enthusiastic, but the biologists vetoed it.

I think with any new paradigm change, like bringing engineering into biology, scientists are enormously conservative and enormously skeptical. And people are most comfortable doing what they’ve always done. So getting people to think openly about why they should change in major ways is a big challenge.

How did you come up with P4 medicine?

P4 medicine stands for Predictive, Personalized, Preventive and Participatory. That came right out of thinking about a systems approach to disease and developing new technologies. That’s the current passion I have. It isn’t an incremental change. It’s an enormous, revolutionary change.

At the heart of it, it views medicine as an informational science. I feel that in 10 years, each patient will be surrounded by billions of data points, and we’ll be able to extract from them enormous personal information on how to inform the patient to go forward into wellness and maximize their wellness in the future.

 Why is P4 medicine such a departure from the way we do medicine now?

When you go to see a physician now, you’re lucky if he gives you 20 measurements on you. That’s only if he gives you a laboratory test of some kind. We’ll be able to do tens of thousands of measurements, up to billions of measurements.

 I think in 10 years we’ll have a little handheld device where you can prick your thumb and take a fraction of a droplet of blood and measure 2,500 proteins. From this we’ll be able to assess all 50 of your major organ systems and determine whether they’re in a state of wellness or moving into a state of disease. Those are the kind of things that will come from [P4] that are totally, totally different from what’s being done now.

Personalized medicine is starting to gain some traction. The Institute for Systems Biology recently teamed up with Ohio State University to start the P4 Medicine Institute and has a partnership with the country of Luxembourg to kick-start personalized medicine. What are the challenges and controversies that you faced and that you still face with P4 medicine?

To do P4 medicine, there are two challenges. One is the technical things, and the second is getting society to accept it. I think the biggest challenges are all on the societal side: Can you persuade physicians to transform how they do medicine? Can you persuade patients that this is a good thing, and that they have to take responsibility? Can you transform a whole health care community to this new vision?

Allied with that are questions about ethics and privacy…. Those are going to be enormous challenges, I think.

I’ve faced a lot of skepticism and criticism at every major turning point in my career. But I was convinced I was right, and I have been.

Did you ever doubt yourself?

Never once. I was always convinced that the things that I’ve really pushed have been the right way to go. That makes it easy. You don’t worry about criticisms. Especially now, I’ve been right so many times, it’s been pretty easy to ignore the critics. That can be dangerous, one of these days you may be wrong, and then it won’t work out so well. But that hasn’t happened so far.  

What are you looking forward to in the future?

I think what I’m looking forward to is really realizing P4 medicine and seeing it go out and work with patients and catalyze a big revolution in how we practice medicine.

If we’re really successful there, we’ll be successful in changing the world.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer at Science News. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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