Name: Lee Hood
Position: President, Institute for Systems Biology, 1999 — the present
Background: Chairman, Department of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington; director of the UW Center for Molecular Biotechnology, 1991 — 1999
Education: MD, Johns Hopkins Medical School
PhD in biochemistry, California Institute of Technology
This week, reference laboratory giant Laboratory Corporation of America said it had retained Lee Hood as a consultant in hopes that his knowledge of systems biology might help the company "develop innovative programs that accelerate the integration of medicine and molecular diagnostics."
Hood is credited with the development of the first automated DNA sequencer and DNA synthesizer, and is the recipient of numerous academic and professional honors. Pharmacogenomics Reporter spoke to Hood this week to ask him how systems biology, molecular diagnostics, pharmacogenomics, and large-scale clinical lab testing fit together.
Is your role in the consultation agreement one as an individual advisor?
My role is to be an individual advisor to give [LabCorp] a window into new technologies and where the systems approach to medicine is going to take diagnostics, and it's nothing more than that. It's [as a] high-level consultant to the board.
Why just you and not the Institute for Systems Biology?
It's in part because that's the logical first step — that is, for them to explore whether the ideas we have are going to be really what they'd like to support, and I suspect that if they are attractive, then in the future they would think about other kinds of agreements.
So it's just being cautious and seeing what this new world is all about.
Did they approach you, or was it the other way around?
It was really a mixture of both. We kind of met through a common friend who knew the CEO of LabCorp, and knew me, and he said, 'Look, I've heard you talk, and these ideas are interesting — why don't you get together?' So, I went to a board meeting and gave them a synopsis of the vision, and they said, 'Well, let's spend some more time thinking about this.'
What does systems biology tell us about new diagnostic approaches?
Well, it gives us a clear logic for being able to get markers that are very, very powerful — that can focus in on particular organs and particular diseases. Most of the biomarkers that are out there are very non-specific, and if they change, you don't know whether it's because of change of Organ A or Organ B, and you don't know if it's Disease X or Disease Y. And these systems approaches give us a new logic and a new strategy for choosing markers that will focus on organs and focus on particular diseases.
Can you run through an example?
The simple idea is that there are molecules that are made by networks in all of our different individual organs that are organ-specific, and some of these are secreted into the blood. And there they constitute a molecular fingerprint that reports back the status of that organ, and only that organ. So that's the essence of the idea.
And diagnostic companies might take advantage of the approach by knowing the fingerprint of a given organ, and perhaps devising a specific diagnostic?
Exactly. That's exactly right.
Might a company like LabCorp use knowledge about systems biology to put money into particular efforts?
I think LabCorp itself is really interested in, 'What are the diagnostic tests you can give me?' rather than basic research. They'd probably be more likely to focus their resources on really going after specific new diagnostic markers.
Would they look more closely at companies that produce diagnostics for those markers?
That's exactly right.
What direction do you see this going in? Are there more promising directions, especially in the area of pharmacogenomics?
The strategy that I've enunciated certainly could do pharmacogenomics beautifully. You could, for example, assess the state of the liver with these organ-specific markers — hepatotoxic responses to drugs and so forth. It's a way of being able to assess responses in the human organism.
But are there fields in medicine in which you feel that the state of the art is advanced enough that useful diagnostics are right around the corner?
Cancer is probably the place where it's going to hit first. We're working on prostate cancer, and I think we'll have a series of new markers there in the next couple of years.
Is there any role here for the Institute for Systems Biology's business accelerator program, and those companies associated with it?
Well, if some of those companies associated with it are identifying the kinds of markers that we're interested in, then that obviously would be [applicable]. We have started a company called Homestead that's interested in blood markers, so there may be an interaction between Homestead and LabCorp, but nothing is settled at this point.
How would you assess LabCorp's involvement in the rollout of pharmacogenomics up to this point?
I would just say, I think it's one of the two most-successful diagnostic companies in the country. They analyze 350,000 blood samples a day. It's a hell of a strong company to start thinking about these ideas with, and I think I'll leave it at that.
LabCorp, Quest, and other competitors took the Roche AmpliChip CYP450 into their testing menus recently, and I'm curious about your opinion of the speed of that industry's adoption of pharmacogenomic tests.
I never tell companies what to do, because they have to run at their own pace. But I think pharmacogenetics does offer some really exciting opportunities, there's no question about it.
In the statement announcing your consulting position with LabCorp, it says the agreement 'provides a unique opportunity to test the merits of new diagnostic approaches against the reality of the marketplace through the application of systems biology.' What does that mean?
That the fact that they have a hell of a lot of blood samples to analyze, so if we get good markers, they can use them in very, very large numbers of tests.
And through that find out whether a given approach is economically viable?