This article was originally published on May 28.
Pacific Biosciences said last week that it has hired Eric Schadt as chief scientific officer — a new position for the firm.
Schadt, who will start his appointment on June 1 after working part-time for the company for several weeks, comes to PacBio from Merck subsidiary Rosetta Inpharmatics in Seattle, where he was executive scientific director of genetics. Merck said last fall that it would shut down its Seattle research site and move Rosetta Inpharmatics employees to its research center in Boston.
PacBio CEO Hugh Martin told In Sequence last week that the company decided to create the CSO post now because it has begun to move from technology development to commercialization, which involves early-access collaborations and searching for suitable research applications for its real-time single-molecule sequencing technology.
"We now need to start thinking not so much about how we make the technology work — because it clearly works — but about how we can enable scientists around the world to use the technology," he said. This required bringing someone on board who "can help us and our customers to understand what this new technology can do."
PacBio's platform — like other next-generation sequencing technologies — will be able to generate large amounts of different kinds of data, for example on genomic DNA variation, DNA methylation, RNA expression, and DNA-protein interactions.
From his work at Merck, Schadt has experience with integrating different data types from several genomic platforms in order to build predictive models of disease, which will be valuable to the company, Martin said. "He will be able to help us decide which applications will be potentially the most rewarding."
For example, Schadt's group at Merck generated high-density genotyping data in human and mouse disease populations that included tens of thousands of samples, and gene-expression data from several tissues of these samples, using arrays from Affymetrix and Illumina as well as performing "some limited RNA-based sequencing" on the Illumina Genome Analyzer.
"What I pushed was a more holistic view of the system, and monitoring different types of data, not just DNA variation, but transcription variation and protein interactions and DNA-protein binding, combined with clinical trait information, to build models that are actually predictive of disease," Schadt said. More than fifty percent of all novel targets under development at Merck in metabolic disease areas such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity stem from his group's work, he added.
Pacific Biosciences, he said, will be able to "generate data on a comprehensive scale that's just unprecedented," helping researchers to obtain "snapshots of the system in ways that are relevant to disease."
At PacBio, he said, his focus will be on "defining those types of applications, and setting the big-vision strategy for how all the data is going to come together to impact human health … and working with collaborators all around the world to define the types of projects that are going to have the highest impact on human health and other complex biological problems."
Part of his role will be to figure out how to manage the information. "I think biology is not quite prepared for the scale of data that the Pacific Biosciences technology is generating," he said. "You are talking about terabytes to petabytes of data being able to be generated by single labs in days — not only how to store that data, but how you will bring it together in ways that refine your understanding of biology."
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Martin said that Schadt's pharma background was not a deciding factor in hiring him but could be useful in the future. "As we gain more understanding of all of this data, pharma is going to become much more involved, and this part of the market is going to become much more important to them," he said.
Along with his new role at PacBio, Schadt will continue to be involved in Sage Bionetworks, a non-profit organization he and his Merck/Rosetta colleague Stephen Friend founded earlier this year that plans to develop an open-access platform for creating models of human disease, initially based on genomic data provided by Merck (see In Sequence sister publication BioInform 3/6/2009).
"Pacific Biosciences will benefit from Sage in that it enables the community to make sense of this kind of data in ways they might not have anticipated, or been able to do on their own," Schadt said.
According to Martin, PacBio currently has no formal relationship with Sage but might decide to provide data to it later. Like Sage, he said, the company supports open access to data formats and software pipelines, "so that developers around the world can think about how to use [the data]."