Biology is a complex matter

Today’s grand chal­lenge in med­i­cine and biology is com­plexity, according to world-​​renowned sys­tems biol­o­gist Lee Hood, who addressed the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity on Monday in the fourth install­ment in the Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series.

“How we deal with com­plexity is absolutely para­mount,” Hood told more than 200 stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff and uni­ver­sity leaders in atten­dance at Raytheon Amphitheater.

His­tor­i­cally, sci­ence has taken a reduc­tionist approach, looking at the indi­vidual parts — such as a single pro­tein or mol­e­cule — that make up the whole. But to fully tease apart bio­log­ical com­plexity, Hood explained, we must under­stand how the parts inter­con­nect as well as the dynamics of those interconnections.

In opening remarks, host Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun labeled Hood as “a dis­rupter.” That’s because in Hood’s 40-​​year career, the co-​​founder of the Insti­tute for Sys­tems Biology in Seattle enabled sev­eral paradigm-​​changing dis­rup­tions. He devel­oped ground-​​breaking tech­nolo­gies like the auto­mated gene sequencer, which enabled the Human Genome Project as well as the con­tem­po­rary, high-​​throughput approach to biology. He imple­mented the first cross-​​disciplinary depart­ment in the nation (mol­e­c­ular biotech­nology at Cal­i­fornia Insti­tute of Tech­nology) and cre­ated the field of sys­tems biology.

Today, Aoun said, Hood con­tinues to dis­rupt: “The future of med­i­cine is going to be totally dif­ferent because of what he has done and because of what he is doing.”

Hood believes that in 10 years, every one of us will have our genome sequenced and that a drop of our blood will pro­vide a “window for health and dis­ease.” By map­ping our per­sonal net­works of genes, pro­teins and mol­e­cules, Hood said, we will be able to pre­dict and pre­vent dis­ease. Add par­tic­i­pa­tion to the “three Ps” of per­son­al­iza­tion, pre­dic­tion and pre­ven­tion, and we’ll see a shift toward what Hood calls “P4 Medicine.”

“P4 med­i­cine will have pro­found impli­ca­tions,” he said. It will sig­nif­i­cantly reduce the cost of health care by allowing for ear­lier dis­ease diag­nosis. Patients and dis­eases will be strat­i­fied, such that we will know how indi­vid­uals will respond to cer­tain med­ica­tions based on their per­sonal “net­work of networks.”

Prior to the talk, audi­ence mem­bers watched a light­hearted short film in which Aoun tried to clone him­self using gene map­ping and cloning. Ulti­mately, he wasn’t too suc­cessful. “I need Lee,” Aoun said.

Over his career, Hood picked up a few lessons, which he offered to atten­dees. For one thing, he said, we need to fun­da­men­tally change how we teach. We also need to combat the anti-​​intellectualism and anti-​​science move­ments that have become per­va­sive in our nation.

The par­a­digm changes that Hood’s work enabled were each ini­tially met with enor­mous skep­ti­cism, he recalled. But each wound up fun­da­men­tally changing how we now think about biology and med­i­cine. To reach that point, he said, new orga­ni­za­tional struc­tures first needed to be created.

“Old orga­ni­za­tions have bureau­cra­cies that have been honed by the past,” he said. “They are barely capable of dealing with the present and they cannot deal with the future.” Sim­i­larly, if we are to meet the com­plex chal­lenges now facing us, we will need unique approaches.

Fol­lowing Hood’s talk, he fielded ques­tions on the intri­ca­cies of imple­menting his vision from mem­bers of the audi­ence and via social media.

The Pro­files in Inno­va­tion Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series is designed to bring the world’s most cre­ative minds to campus for con­ver­sa­tions on inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship. Pre­vious speakers include iRobot CEO and co-​​founder Colin Angle, air­space sculptor Janet Echelman and David Fer­rucci, the prin­cipal inves­ti­gator on the IBM team that cre­ated the Watson supercomputer.