Leroy Hood: “Your genome does not control your destiny, just your potential”

More than 36 patents, 17 honorary degrees and 100 plus awards. This is the weight behind Lee Hood, one of only 15 people elected to all three US National Academies—of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Hood has also founded 15 biotech companies, as well as the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. A pioneer in the systems approach to biology and medicine, he came to the PRBB to talk about his vision for the future of medicine.

How has biology changed in the last 50 years?

There have been several paradigm changes in biology I have been involved in. The first was bringing engineering to biology to create the technologies needed to explore new dimensions, such as the automated DNA sequencer. The second was the human genome project. The third, realising the importance of interdisciplinarity. Naturally from that followed systems biology and, more recently, systems medicine and P4 medicine.

What is P4 medicine?

It is predictive, preventive, personalised and participatory medicine. It is proactive, rather than reactive: it aims to avoid the disease rather than act after it manifests. It focuses on wellness and not just disease. It’s based on the individual’s own biology, and not on a populational ‘average’. And the person is at the centre of his or her own health, they play a role by taking action to increase their wellness.

Tell us how your 100K wellness project fits into this.

In 2012 I proposed a longitudinal, high-dimensional data study of 100,000 healthy individuals, to monitor their health changes and try to see the transitions from health to disease in order learn to predict them. I didn’t get any government funding – too risky! But through philanthropy we managed to start in 2014 with 108 people. We followed them for 6 months: sequenced their whole genome, did blood, saliva, urine and gut microbioma analyses every three months, and tracked their lifestyle. We found some participants had chronic diseases they didn’t know about! We looked for ‘actionable possibilities’ they could implement to increase their wellness, and a medical coach explained to them why these changes – like substituting the tuna sushi they ate for salmon sushi, with lower mercury levels – were a good idea.

How did participants react?

A few of them were sceptical from the beginning, but they all were surprised by the results. Some found they were pre-diabetic without knowing it, and by introducing the changes suggested their sugar levels became normal. They realised your genome does not control your destiny – just your potential, and you have some power to change this, if you have the information.

It seems unrealistic to scale this up to the whole population…

Today it costs about $6000 per person and year, but cost will go down. If we can detect a transition from wellness to disease early enough and avoid that illness and its expensive treatment, we will save a lot of money. In the long term, I am convinced P4 medicine will be more efficient than traditional medicine.

This Interview by Maruxa was published in El·lipse #94



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