Mobile Menu

FOG Spotlight: A Conversation with Leroy Hood

“What are you going to do with an extra 10 or 20 years of productive and creative life?” asks The Festival of Genomics and Biodata Keynote Speaker, Dr. Leroy Hood.

Discover the future of medicine with Dr. Leroy Hood, CEO, Phenome Health, as he describes a revolutionary approach to healthcare focusing on data-driven wellness and personalized prevention.

World-renowned scientist, co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology and 17 biotech companies, and Recipient of the National Medal of Science, Dr. Leroy Hood is a trailblazer in genomics. His pioneering work helped to decode the human genome and his role in advancing technologies has earned him numerous accolades. We’re delighted that he’ll be joining us next month at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston, and we sat down with him this week to get a glimpse into what he’ll be discussing.

Want to hear more from Lee and 160+ expert speakers? Join us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston. It’s FREE for 90% of attendess!

Please note: Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

FLG: Hi everybody. Today we’re delighted to be joined by Leroy Hood, a pioneering scientist whose contributions have significantly shaped the landscape of modern biology. Lee will be joining us as a keynote speaker next month at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston, and we’re lucky to be able to spend some time with him today to get a glimpse into what he’ll be discussing at the event.

So, Lee over to you. Your work has been integral in driving forward the field of systems biology – compared to your initial visions, has anything surprised you about where the field has gone?

Leroy Hood: Well, systems biology was, of course, a simplistic idea that in order to understand the complexity of biology – something like the immune system, which I was studying when I began my career – one had to take a global and holistic view. What we came to realise as the systems approach evolved – and it has evolved strikingly over the last 24 years, we started the first Institute of Systems Biology in roughly 2000 – is by bringing in and stressing the importance of dynamics, being able to look at a system and see how it changes over time. Those changes over time are absolutely critical to deciphering a lot of complexity. And we’ve also realised that what is integral to it is putting together different types of data. So, in a sense, they reassemble what happens in the body, through integration, coordination and harmonisation.

And finally, we’ve come to realise that systems biology is really hierarchical. We’re talking about how things operate at the molecular level, how they operate at the level of cells, how they operate at the level of tissues, and finally, how they operate at the level of a population of individuals. And so, systems approaches have to be able to encompass the enormous spatial, as well as the temporal, differences that occur in maturation and development. What I’ve been most impressed about in systems biology is when we move on to additional complexities, we’ve always been able to get solutions that begin to give us deep insights into the next layer of complexities, and I suspect that will continue to go forward.

FLG: Thank you. That’s really interesting. And in addition to that, you’ve pioneered a number of groundbreaking techniques. Which of these developments would you say has had the most profound impact and why?

Leroy Hood: We’ve developed over the years six instruments and technologies for, essentially, reading and writing DNA. And without a question, I think the most important of all of them is automating DNA sequencing. Because not only did that make the genome possible, it made it possible for us to look at what happens in cells with regard to the expression of genes. And it also made it possible for us to look at what happens in individual cells with regard to changes during physiology or disease, or whatever transitions you’re looking at. And indeed today, automated DNA sequencing is integral to probably the most effective proteomic technology for quantifying complex sets of up to 5,000 proteins, all at one time. So, it’s a tool that has, I think, transformed biology many times over.

FLG: I think we can all appreciate how important that is for modern biology. Looking back over such a remarkable career, what are the key lessons you’ve learned about driving forward scientific innovation?

Leroy Hood: I would say the key lesson that I’ve learned is any really innovative new idea always faces enormous resistance. And often it is impossible to really develop that idea in the context of the organization in which it emerged, because bureaucracies are honed to deal with the present and not with the future. And in my career, I’ve participated in a series of seven paradigm changes, and for each of those paradigm changes, either I or others had to create a new organisation to actually realise them. So, for the instruments that we talked about, the six different tools, I created Applied Biosystems, which did four of them, and then I created, together with others, a company called Rosetta, that had the inkjet technology that is still used by Agilent to synthesise 10s of 1000s of fragments of DNA. And then finally, I created a company called NanoString, which really pioneered single RNA and DNA analysis techniques. This actually, more recently, has led to spatial biology. You can look in tissues at how things change.

The other thing that I’ve really learned is with new paradigm changes, with all the skepticism you face, you need to have enormous, determined enthusiasm, or you’ll never push the idea through. It’s too easy, after you’ve been criticized – I remember when we started talking in the late 1980s about the Human Genome Project, I would guess 80% of the biologists opposed it, and NIH opposed it. They argued that genetics was all you needed to do, you didn’t need to worry about genomics. Of course, that all turned out to be incorrect. But you needed a certain amount of determined optimism to go against hearing the same things over and over again. So, new organisations need new structures, and you need to drive things forward with determined optimism. Those are two big lessons.

FLG: It’s very interesting to hear you say that the Human Genome Project was opposed, it makes you wonder what is happening today that’s being opposed, that will be integral in 20 or 30 years time.

Leroy Hood: I think the Phenome initiative, which is an initiative we’re looking at to move from the genome to the phenome and come to understand its diversity, and, most importantly, the role it plays in human health. And there’s a lot of scepticism about how much it costs and how difficult it is, and all of these kinds of things. But all of these things in 10 years will be forgotten and everybody will say, ‘it’s obvious.’ This is important. Just like today, we realise how important the genome is for human health.

FLG: Is there anything about your career that our audience may not know and that you’d like to share with us?

Leroy Hood: Well, on a scientific basis, my early career was really grounded in molecular immunology. And that’s where I came to realise the incredible subtlety and complexity of human biology. That’s where I really began to realise how important systems biology was going to be. So, on one level, that’s really key. On the other level, as an athlete, I guess my proudest moment was when I was quarterback for a team whose last three and a half years in high school, we were undefeated, and won a bunch of state championships. There’s more to the individual than just being a scientist!

FLG: It’s certainly an achievement to be proud of! You’ve long been an advocate for P4 medicine. Can you explain the core principles of P4 medicine and how it differs from traditional reactive medicine?

Leroy Hood: Well, it was in the early 2000s that I first formulated the idea of what we now call P4 medicine. Really, we’ve transferred it to P4 healthcare, because it’s a healthcare that’s predictive, preventive, personalised and participatory. And I think what’s interesting is the first three P’s – prediction prevention and personalization – are about science. We know how to do the science of data-driven health that will lead to this phenome initiative and the big revolution that’s going to come, in pushing healthcare from its current, almost dominant, focus on disease, to one where the major focus will be wellness and prevention. And that’s the essence of what data-driven health is going to do. So, I think that whole approach to things is the essence of what P4 medicine is all about.

Now, the fourth P is by far the most difficult, because the fourth P – participatory – is, ‘how do I persuade patients?’ How do I persuade physicians? How do I persuade health care leaders? How do we persuade pharma? How do we persuade technology companies and AI companies, and regulators and politicians, to accept the fact there’s going to be an enormous revolution in medicine, driven by phenomics. This idea of participation requires psychology, sociology, education. And it requires an understanding of the economics that have embedded healthcare, to the point where physicians only make money when they work on disease, basically. And actually, it runs counter to the needs of wellness and prevention in that regard.

FLG: That’s a very interesting concept, and a very important one as well. At The Festival of Genomics and Biodata next month, you’ll be focusing heavily on data-driven health as a means to assess and optimize health trajectories. And so, looking to the future, how do you see the integration of this approach in helping to optimize wellness?

Leroy Hood: Well, the data driven approach was first seriously pioneered by a company I started in 2015, Arivale, where we collected phenomic data from 5,000 people over a longitudinal period of time. Those data have led to more than 25 papers in leading journals, each giving you a view of wellness and/or of prevention. I think the really critical thing for the future is going to be expanding those studies into much larger populations. Initially, we’re looking at healthcare systems, and we’re actually looking at countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that are very interested in data driven health and pushing these kinds of initiatives. But, the ultimate project that I think is really going to validate this whole revolution and paradigm change to wellness and prevention is the Million Person Project. Over a 10-year period, using genomic and phenomic data to create actionable possibilities for each individual that can be prioritized, and through which each individual can meet one major objective – to extend your health span into the 90s, or even the early 100s. And if we can do that, if we could live healthy and wealthy and wise for that long, the really fascinating question that comes up is, what are you going to do with this extra 10 or 20 years of productive and creative life? And most people haven’t thought very much about a topic like that.

FLG: No, certainly not! And again, it’s a very interesting question to consider. Finally, what do you think the audience can learn from your talk at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata next month?

Leroy Hood: I think the major lessons in the talk are that this data-driven approach to health has worked beautifully in the past with a population of 5,000 individuals. And it can be extended beyond what we did there. There are three major axes of health. You want brain health, you want body health, and you want gut microbiome health. In Arivale, we did body and gut microbiome, and in the new programmes, we’re adding brain health, because the brain is absolutely critical for human health. Clearly, it’s the brain, with regard to cognition and your ability to remember things or have good reaction times. It’s the brain, with your ability to integrate and interact with people and all those things. And the brain has to be exercised, just like the heart does. And when’s the last time your doctor ever asked, ‘how is your brain?’ They ignore the brain, virtually, in modern health. So, this is one place we’re going to go.

I think there’s a second place we’re going to go. With Arivale, and 5,000 people over a four-year period, we generated of the order of 200 actionable possibilities. These are possibilities that, if the relevant individuals carry them out, either improve wellness, or avoid disease. And I think with the Human Phenome Initiative I proposed, we’ll end up with 10 or 15 or 20,000 of these actionable possibilities. What it really means is we’re going to have to use the modern tools of AI – that is, knowledge graphs, digital twins, large language models – to be able to take the enormous complexity of the individual, and to stratify it into a list of actionable possibilities that have been prioritised according to importance, and then send it in a partnership with physicians that can then return the results to the patient and encourage them to transform their health. So, all of these things will become evident.

The big paradigm changes are going to be a data-driven approach to health, using systems biology to understand causality in all of the events that we’re dealing with here. And, finally, using the tools of AI to be able to assess, categorise, prioritise and then deliver the kind of actionable results that are going to transform the individual from somebody who, when healthy, exhibits 25% of the potential you have for wellness, to someone who extends a much greater magnitude in that regard. So, I think you’ll learn a lot.

FLG: Well, it certainly sounds like it’s going to be a fantastic talk. And hopefully it’ll encourage the audience to exercise their brains, because it’s a very good point that you’ve made – we don’t often get encouraged to do that! We’re really looking forward to your talk, and I’m sure the audience share that sentiment.

Thank you so much for joining us today, it’s been a really interesting discussion. If you would like to hear more from Lee, please come along and join us at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Centre on June 12th and 13th. The Festival of Genomics and Biodata is free for 90% of attendees, and you can hear exciting talks from over 160 speakers, all experts in their respective fields, covering every facet of the space. Thanks again, Lee, and we’ll see you all next month!

Leroy Hood: I enjoyed it. I look forward to the meeting.

Want to hear more from Lee and 160+ expert speakers? Join us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston!