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Leroy Hood Outlines Agenda for New Global Systems Biology Hub in Seattle

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EATTLE--Three months after leaving his post at the University of Washington, Leroy Hood has launched full throttle into his new quest: to create a worldwide hub for systems biology and technology innovation.

With a $5 million gift from an anonymous donor, the renowned gene-sequencing scientist secured a 28,000-square-foot space here and hired 15 administrators and managers for the high-throughput facility that he has called the Institute for Systems Biology. Hood said he expects by June to have about 60 people on board, contributing to this region's expanding bioinformatics presence.

"We're in the process of establishing a series of partnerships with the Pacific Northwest National Lab, Immunex, Merck, and a whole host of other companies to set up specific interactions that deal with core aspects of biology and technological science," he told BioInform.

Hood, who has participated in founding seven biotechnology companies, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, Systemix, Darwin, and Rosetta Inpharmatics, began planning the institute four years ago. Frustrated by constraints put on his work by the university, where he had served for eight years as chair of the University's Department of Molecular Biotechnology, Hood finally resigned to establish the institute. He recruited a board of trustees, including George Rathman, former CEO of Amgen and ICOS, and Roger Perlmutter, executive vice president of Merck Research Laboratories. Louis Coffman is the institute's senior administrator.

In an exclusive interview with BioInform at his office here, Hood discussed plans for the institute (http://www.systems-biology.org).

BioInform: What will be the role of bioinformatics at the institute?

Hood: A big part of what we want to do is computational biology. We'll have collaborations with the San Diego Supercomputer Center [and with] Paracel, a company that mixes hardware and software solutions and designs specialized co-processing devices.

BioInform: What other partnerships have you developed in the three months since you opened doors here?

Hood: Part of the vision is to partner with large companies such as Merck that take on problems that only have long-term solutions and opportunities for funding.

With smaller biotech companies, we're partnering to help them benchmark, develop, and integrate new technologies into our high-throughput platforms. For example, we have hired people to do high-throughput sequencing, DNA arrays, and genotyping.

We have the computational infrastructure for supporting all of those kinds of things. We're negotiating with the university for various affiliation agreements, which will give faculty collaborative interactions with university faculty members. We are partnering with people at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, California Institute of Technology, and University of California, San Diego.

BioInform: What are your staffing plans?

Hood: Our vision is that the Institute will grow to 25 to 30 faculty members. We plan to hire them at the rate of two to three a year. We'll be in this temporary space for about three years until we can build a larger institute to house us effectively. We're looking to hire really good people out of post-doctoral fellowships, as well as people from universities and industry.

BioInform: From where is your funding coming?

Hood: We're transferring about $6 million worth of grants from the university, and we've put in a series of applications to various federal programs.

BioInform: What are your immediate research interests?

Hood: One [area] the institute is interested in is studying human variation and correlating genetic disease. That's going to lead to predictive and ultimately preventative medicines. This means doing more education, as these are big revolutions that society has to be prepared for. If we are not prepared, we could run into the same kind of objections that genetically engineered organisms in the agriculture section have seen in Europe.

--Amy E. Nevala

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