“Paradigm changes are so hard to come up with because they require thinking outside the box.”

If there was ever an industry in need of a paradigm change, it's healthcare. The World Health Organization estimated total spending on global health in 2012 was $6.5 trillion. And that cost will increase unless pioneers develop new technologies and frameworks that focus on preventative medicine.

One of those pioneers is Dr. Leroy Hood, who gave a keynote speech at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference. With an amazing record of innovation in the biological and computational sciences, he also contributed to the Human Genome Project and co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology.

But it’s his vision of a new kind of integrated, personalized medicine that could transform healthcare in enormous ways.

For decades, Dr. Hood has advocated for systems medicine, which addresses the complexity of health by factoring in the biochemical, physiological, and environmental aspects at the same time. This holistic approach has the potential to provide unprecedented insights into disease from start to finish.

Yet executing that vision won’t come easily.

It means not only stitching together current health data but, in some cases, also inventing new interdisciplinary technologies to get the necessary data rapidly. That's exactly the approach Dr. Hood took 30 years ago when he developed an automated sequencer for DNA.

“We needed to really seamlessly integrate together engineering, chemistry, computer science, and molecular biology,” he said at Exponential Medicine. “When we did that, within two months we had the basic strategy that later worked out for automated DNA sequencing.”

It was this same kind of approach that led to the success of the Human Genome Project.

“What we needed were a whole series of technologies and systems-driven strategies to be developed.” Over the years, Dr. Hood has helped build a slew of new technologies, including third-generation sequencing, diagnostic microfluidics, and family genome sequencing.

And the progress continues today.

Applying these lessons to the idea of total health, Dr. Hood is extending the ideas of systems biology to systems medicine. This is an important framework because the determinants of health range from genetics (30%), environment and lifestyle (60%), and healthcare (10%).

A multi-causal understanding of health is essential to unraveling how disease disrupts the biological networks within our bodies.

But what will this actually look like in practice? Longer disease-free lives. If disease can be caught at the very earliest stages, our lives would look very different.

“My hypothesis is that if you participate in scientific wellness for your entire life — aspiring to all the actionable possibilities — we can elevate you to the status of the ‘wellderly’,” said Dr. Hood. “We can bring you into your 90s mentally and physically functional.”

To usher in an entirely new proactive approach to health, Dr. Hood has developed P4 medicine (predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory) to quantify wellness and demystify disease.

While the current healthcare industry is focused on disease, a whole new industry is emerging to identify the key metrics that define wellness. Instead of studying populations or isolated, single factors, the P4 approach focuses on generating a platform for “dense, dynamic, personalized data clouds” chock full of health insights.

“Just like the Hubble Telescope gave us the ability to look at the stars with a resolution we'd never had before, so these dense, dynamic data clouds have let us look at aspects of human biology and human disease in ways we could never do before,” Dr. Hood said.

Imagine taking all the data that might affect your health — your genetic disposition for developing cancer, information about diet from your stool, the amount of exercise and sleep you get — and putting them into a database. Now, on its own that data would probably be quite messy, but when compared to the datasets of other individuals, certain groupings start to emerge, and with them, insights such as connections between biological systems.

Routine data collection will unveil how biological systems are perturbed by disease and how that disease progresses. These insights will lead to the preventive medicine of the future, so that we can transition not from wellness to disease, but wellness to greater wellness.

Recently, the institute was acquired to become the research arm of Providence, a non-profit healthcare provider with 30 million electronic medical health records. The acquisition will further open up advances by providing a huge amount of data to be analyzed.

All of Dr. Hood’s distinguished career is coming to bear as the platform for P4 medicine advances and systems medicine edges toward becoming the favored model for healthcare. But it happened because of his unconventional approach of tackling health through a new way of thinking.

“My most fundamental philosophy is new ideas need new organizational structures.”


David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.