Dr. Leroy Hood and Northeastern President Joseph Aoun. Copyright News@Northeastern
On November 5, 2012, I attended the Profiles in Innovation speaker series at Northeastern University where NEU President Joseph Aoun spoke with systems biologist Dr. Leroy Hood. Dr. Hood was one of the original scientists behind the Human Genome Project, enabling its progress by creating the first automated gene sequencing mechanism. Two weeks ago, on February 1, 2013, Dr. Hood received the National Medal of Science from President Obama for a lifetime full of scientific achievements and contributions.
Hearing Dr. Hood’s points affirmed that the healthcare industry is ripe for innovation in so many different ways and angles. Dr. Hood presented several problems and paradigms throughout his interview that need attention, that need the ingenuity and passion of scientists, businessmen, and software engineers to achieve. I have summarized some of what Dr. Hood shared with us below:
Opportunity #1: Eliminating Signal to Noise Issues
Dr. Hood discussed that in DNA sequencing on a macro level (sequencing every human’s data to find large and common patterns) as well as on an individual level, one problem scientists face is in removing the noise from their analysis and data. For example, a DNA sample may be contaminated with foreign chemicals or substances, and scientists need to isolate what they are studying to get the correct samples. Similarly, we need to be able to remove any noise from the billions of lines of data we collect and to quickly see what’s true. We simply are not yet confident enough in the data gathered because of this signal to noise problem.
Opportunity #2: Making Existing Tools and Research Accessible and Affordable
While much of the technology needed to sequence a genome and possibly even cure cancer already exist, the use of many such tools are blocked by patents or private organizations who are not sharing. If these tools and research findings are made more accessible, we can collaborate and work together to make faster progress in our missions to cure diseases or find vaccines for HIV, malaria, and other epidemic infections. Organizations such as The Broad Institute are doing the good deed here in putting their research online for anyone to read and learn from without having to deal with restrictive and prohibitive copyright protection.
Opportunity #3: Finding the Genes that Facilitate Wellness
One of the highlights of Dr. Hood’s interview was his statement that in 20 or so years, this industry will be less about “healthcare” and more about “wellness” promotion. The idea behind physical and mental wellness is to promote prevention and healthy lifestyles that can keep people out of expensive emergency rooms and sick beds. Right now the majority of DNA sequencing is being done to identify disease genes, but soon we will also look at our DNA to see identify genes that make us strong and healthy. Knowing which genes these are can open many doors.
Opportunity #4: Building Patient-Centered Online Social Networks
The idea of social networking (securely) should be replicated in healthcare so that doctors can build closer relationships with their patients and the other doctors working on their patients. If doctor-patient communication is only happening when patients are sick, then there is little prevention and wellness being assured. Patients can keep in touch with their doctors to provide updates and symptom alerts without having to face the opportunity costs of taking time off of work to go to simple appointments for what could be no problem at all, or to take up space in emergency rooms when their case is not an emergency. Plus, if a social network can mine all the data patients have, we can extrapolate it, study traits and come closer to finding cures by locating patterns among huge data sets of patients.
Opportunity #5: Inventing Hand-Held Devices for Genome Sequencing
In order to get every human’s genome sequenced, we’ll need to simplify sequencing enough so that it could be done on our own devices like our smartphones. Innovative companies like 23andMe are aggressively working at this problem and are able to sequence the DNA of their clients for just $99. The price of genome sequencing has come a long way. Just 10 years ago, the cost of sequencing one genome was a staggering $95 million dollars. We are now reaching the $100 threshold!
Opportunity #6: Providing Accurate and Reliable Medical Information Online
With the internet and tools like WebMD and Wikipedia, more people every day are going online to look up what conditions they have based on apparent symptoms or to find their likelihood of having certain diseases based on family history. However, the data presented is not clear and is not accurate for everyone. People can grow worried and confused when finding frightening information that in reality may not be applicable at all to their situations. Better, more person-specific tools that are accessible from one’s home must be created. Human health is not as mechanically systematic as a computer, for example, and thus health research needs to be tailored more towards the individual and their own history. This is where Watson can come in. Watson, a supercomputer developed by IBM that outsmarted Jeopardy champions without the use of an internet connection, is better capable at providing patient-specific information on the go than a Google search can.
Opportunity #7: Studying and Analyzing Cells
While we are now getting a hang of sequencing and understanding DNA, we still haven’t done enough analysis at the cell and molecular level to see how these basic human blocks of life work and remain strong.
Opportunity #8: Creating High-Resolution Molecular Imaging
Related to problem 7, scientists are searching for the technology to capture high-resolution images at the molecular level to better understand the composition of different human molecules as well as to see how infected molecules look like versus healthy ones.
Opportunity #9: Advanced, Gene-Centered In-Vitro Fertilization
According to Dr. Hood, it will not be long till parents are being asked by doctors which genes they want to transfer to their children. By collecting DNA samples of separated sperm and egg samples, scientists can identify the samples with the least amount of genetic problems and combine the two to produce a child through in-vitro fertilization.
Opportunity #10: Calculating Someone’s Chronological & Physiological Ages
While a person may be 70 years old according to their birth certificate, they may have the health and well-being of a typical 50 year old. Calculating this number can be used as an important indicator of someone’s wellness. Like we use the S&P 500 benchmark to quickly measure one company’s share value against industry standards, we can create benchmarks of what an ideal person looks like at each age to use to compare patients and realize how healthy they are for someone their age. If a patient is physiologically older than their age, this is a bad sign and a doctor can provide guidance and direction on how to reverse that trend.
Opportunity #11: Understanding the Quality of Skin’s Effects on Health
Dr. Hood brought up a point towards the end of his interview that more research needs to be done on the effects skin health has on the rest of a person’s health. Dr. Hood seemed to suggest that we are unaware of just how important skin health is to our well-being.
It was a great pleasure to hear Dr. Hood speak and to learn from a man who has had such a tremendous impact on advanced medical research. If you were to tackle any of these eleven problems that he addressed, you too could leave your mark on the human condition.
I personally hope to.