Leroy Hood to address Northeastern community

Photo by Robin Layton.

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.

Hood will talk for about an hour and will wel­come ques­tions from the audi­ence there­after. You can also get your ques­tions in early on Face­book and Twitter (use the ref­er­ence hashtag, #NUS­peakers).