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Gene pioneer to be honored
September 7, 2011

By Patrick Danner, San Antonio Express-News

Seattle biologist and inventor Dr. Leroy Hood, who developed instruments that enabled the Human Genome Project to identify the more than 20,000 genes in human DNA, was selected by BioMed SA to receive its Julio Palmaz Award for 2011.

Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Washington state, will receive the award Sept. 20 at BioMed SA's sixth annual award dinner. The award honors innovation in health care and the biosciences.

"Any time you have your career acknowledged in a way like this, it is an enormous validation," said Hood, 72.

The award is named after San Antonian Julio Palmaz, best known as the inventor of a revolutionary cardiovascular stent that shores up the walls of an artery after an angioplasty to prevent a collapse and blockage of the artery. The stent spawned a multibillion-dollar industry.

Hood, who is both an MD and a Ph.D, said one major highlight of his career was bringing engineering to biology. He did that by developing five instruments to measure biological information. Among the instruments was the automated DNA sequencer, created in 1986, which Hood called the workhorse of the Human Genome Project.

Identifying the 20,000 genes in human DNA made them "accessible to every scientist in the world, and that enormously accelerated the rate of fundamental discovery for both biology and medicine," Hood said. The work also sparked the advancement of powerful new technologies, he said.

Some of the instruments were commercialized by Applied Biosystems Inc., a company Hood founded in 1991.

In 2000, Hood co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology, a nonprofit research organization, to "address the greatest challenge of 21st-century science - understanding biological complexity," according to its website. The institute "is catalyzing fundamental paradigm changes in how the life sciences and medicine are practiced globally."

More recently, Hood has devoted much of his attention to a new approach to medicine he calls "P4 Medicine." He said it has a goal of turning around the ever-escalating cost of health care and bringing medical care to people worldwide.

The four P's are:
Predictive. There soon will be tools to be able to look at a patient's genome so that person optimizes his or her wellness over a lifetime, Hood said.

Personalized. The key to medicine is to treat patients as individuals and not as a population of patients, he said.

Preventive. This means creating a better way to make drugs with a deeper understanding of the immune system so vaccines can be developed to prevent AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and "some of the major scourges of mankind," he said.

Participatory. This addresses the social challenges of new medicine, including how to convince a health care system "that has a lot of vested interests that this revolution is worth uprooting past traditions," he said.

Dr. Robert Gracy, chairman of BioMed SA's selection committee, said the caliber of Palmaz Award winners strengthens every year.

"Our intent was to use this (award) to really showcase top-quality innovation in science and medicine," said Gracy, vice president for research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Hood "has combined medicine, science, engineering and innovation in a very, very unique way that's really provided the basics for all of our understanding of molecular biology and molecular medicine."

Hood was nominated for the award by three BioMed SA members acting independently, each of whom referred to him as a "bioscience icon," said BioMed SA President Ann Stevens.

 

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