Genetic Gifts

The biotech pioneer on improving science education and creating unprecedented health research
Niki Stojnic  |   Seattle Health Spring/Summer 2014   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Lee Hood

You need introduce just a hint of a topic to Dr. Lee Hood to get him talking—and you had better be ready to keep up once he does. The National Medal of Science recipient (2011), inventor of the DNA sequencer and co-founder of 15 different biotech companies, including Amgen, has been on the leading edge of scientific innovation since the start of his career in the 1960s. He cofounded and is the president of Institute for Systems Biology (ISB), a biomedical research nonprofit that is pioneering systems biology, which looks at complex biological systems across disciplines. “The role of the institute is to create knowledge,” says Hood. In March, ISB launched the 100K Wellness Project, an ambitious study that will track the health of participants over 25 years, starting with individual genome sequencing and regularly monitoring a variety of things, from sleep patterns to gut bacteria, intervening with health or lifestyle changes when appropriate. It began as a nine-month pilot program studying 100 people, but is intended to expand to 100,000 people over the next four years.

What is your current research focus?
I do a lot of different things; overall, my interest is in developing the strategies, technologies and the pilot projects to help create a revolution in health care. [In the 100K Wellness Project,] we want to focus on the individuals themselves; they will be surrounded by a virtual data cloud. This involves completely new ways of thinking about medicine and understanding disease medicine; we’re dealing with enormous numbers of people.

What motivates you to keep innovating?
The most important thing is that it’s fun and exciting; working with new things, working with good people. We are doing significant research, and I have terrific colleagues.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing this kind of research now? 
Funding is probably the biggest one—the paralysis between the two [political] parties and the fact that at the same time, more scientists are moving out of science.

How important is it to start science education early?
We have a group that works on K–12 science education, both from a content and pedagogical standpoint. It’s absolutely critical; I think the interest in science has waned in the last 10 years, and having really first-class teaching is absolutely central to getting excited in science. As funding for science has waned, it’s become less attractive to people—you have to fundraise, you have to organize and you have to recruit. It causes young people to say, “Let’s go into something else.”

What do you do when you’re not working?
I read diverse kinds of books—one is Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar, actually an interesting book; I’m a fitness fanatic, exercising an hour or so a day. I like to travel. +

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