California-China connection (1 of 2)

I attended a meeting at UC San Diego last week called the “California-China Connection.” It was organized by the journal Nature and UCSD as a kind of hands-across-the-sea program to bring the heads of Chinese universities with growing biotechnology programs to the US—specifically to fraternize with UCSD faculty—and talk about how each can advance growth in biological science. It makes sense when you hear the dean of UCSD Institute for Molecular Medicine refer to it as a “global university.”

One of the day’s highlights for me occurred even before the program. I was sitting at a table having the obligatory cantaloupe and unripe honeydew melon with a guy I’d just met from Biotech Today when the day’s keynote speaker, Leroy Hood, came over, shook hands with my new acquaintance and sat down beside me.

It was a geek celebrity-moment. In biology Lee Hood is a rock star. To me it’s like having Jagger or Springsteen throw himself down in the next seat. He’s got to be one of the top four or five people in US bioscience. I was so startled I jumped up, grabbed his hand, whipped out a business card and stammered, “Hi, I’m David Collin with the American Cancer Society…and…and I’ll be attending your symposium on systems biology next month in Seattle.” He sat down and said that he’d recently had a two-hour meeting with Andy von Eschenbach, head of NCI, about those 2015 goals of no death and suffering from cancer. Dr. Hood said he told von Eschenbach it could be done, but he’d have to “change everything” at NCI.

Lee Hood is probably one of a handful of people in the country who could level such criticism and make such a recommendation and be listened to. Hood has been rocking the world of life science for nearly 40 years (central in development of both the gene and protein sequencers and synthesizers, pushed the Human Genome Project, etc.) and shows no sign of slowing down. He founded the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, and in the past couple of years at least seven major universities have put together similar institutes (some of which Hood thinks are just more the same old academics). He has not only run counter to established dogma repeatedly, but he has delivered on his ideas with patents and successful companies. Systems biology is his latest vision, and I have little doubt he’ll get it established as a leading paradigm in biology before he’s through.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the biotech industry doesn’t use phrases like “revolutionary” much. They’ve been bitten in the butt too many times. But that doesn’t stop Lee Hood. Here’s some things he predicted during his speech:

  • Pharmas probably won’t be able to manage the complex emerging ideas and data to successfully develop drugs they need for their scale. Successful development will be at the smaller biotech level.
  • Developing concepts like systems biology requires the simultaneous development of technology to make it possible.
  • There’s not a distinction between nanotechnology and biotechnology. They’re using and developing nanotech in Seattle to do systems biology.
  • They’re doing data gathering and building massive nano-feature arrays to study biology at the individual molecule level.
  • The deluge of data from high-throughput measurement systems swamping research these days will continue to grow (the dataspace of biology is infinite).
  • Medical schools and the health care system will have to be totally revolutionized-with great difficulty.

For example, Hood said he expects to see in 10 to 15 years devices the size of PDAs that will prick your finger, draw a drop of blood, and make 10,000 measurements of the characteristics of things in the blood. This data will be analyzed, displayed and relayed by the PDA. This will lead to individual profiles that will be predictive of health conditions and a routine part of monitoring “personalized” medicine. The effect will be great extension of productive longevity, along with attendant social problems.

I’ve never heard so much revolutionary talk from someone not wearing a beret and sporting a scraggly beard. Why’s Hood so confident? Because he’s working on the things to do it. I suspect his brash enthusiasm is why he’s accomplished so much in the past.