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ISB Is a Sure Cure for Summer Doldrums


By John Russell

August 8, 2007 | I spent a week in Seattle in June attending the Institute for Systems Biology’s (ISB) “Intro to Systems Biology” course. It’s designed to provide both lecture and hands-on lab experience for experienced researchers and newcomers alike who are seeking a handle on SB approaches. We’ll publish an account of the course in a future issue. In brief, ISB hopes this course will serve several functions, such as planting seeds for new systems biology projects, attracting potential collaborators, and generally promoting the institute’s broad view of systems biology. It was a great week.

As you might guess, no time spent at ISB would be complete without ISB founder and president, Lee Hood, delivering his wonderfully optimistic and expansive vision of how systems biology will transform medicine. Within 10-20 years, he argues, systems medicine will prevail in a form Hood has dubbed “P4 Medicine:” Predictive,  Personalized, Preventative, and Participatory

He envisions a time when a prick of blood, twice annually, will provide a window into health and disease. Examining the status of 50 or so organ-specific proteins from perhaps 50 major organs and cell types will reveal the interactions of a patient’s genome and environment. These 2500 biomarkers will guide patient care, and of course, the treatment regimes they suggest will also be informed by systems biology.

If such ideas were put forward by someone else, one would be tempted to dismiss or substantially discount them. Human health and disease are complex subjects and poorly understood in many cases, while drug discovery and development has proven to be devilishly messy and unpredictable. But the accomplished Hood is not someone who is easily deterred. He emphasizes strategic partnerships with academia, industry, government laboratories, and international groups that will be essential to achieve P4.

“We’re thinking about setting up a P4 industrial consortium where we will search out from each of those major sectors of healthcare industries, the industry leader, or at least the industry’s most venturesome companies, to, with us, take on one or more milestones and create a consortium where the knowledge can be shared among all members and we can really push the agenda forward,” Hood says.

“We’re also thinking about establishing one or a limited number of ISBs in other countries. The reason is systems biology is really a hot commodity and everybody wants to understand how to do it right. Creating institutions in foreign countries gives you access to new talent and opens up new fund-raising strategies. A big reason for [doing this] is funding at NIH is going to be disastrous over the next three or four years. To do big things like P4 medicine, you’re going to have to go outside the traditional funding arena.”

Pharma Promise
Hood is less sanguine about Big Pharma’s ability to adopt systems biology and P4 medicine. He reports having talks with “one forward-looking company” but concedes he may not succeed in convincing them this is the way to go.

“What will convince [pharma] are examples of drugs that came out of these approaches that were produced rapidly and economically. The only question is whether or not, after you get those examples, it’s too late for them to get in the ball game. I think what’s going to happen is there are going to be a lot of younger companies who see that this is the way to do things, and they’ll be getting set up to do these kind of things.

“In the past, what pharma has tended to do is merge with these companies, and it was easy in most cases because they merged to take the product and threw the company away. Whether they can merge with a company and retain its unique individuality is a question. I know of only one example (Roche/Genentech) when that’s been done and that was done superbly.”

The full story is on Bio-IT World’s website: www.bio-itworld.com/archive/silicobio/index_07192007.htm

Write to me with your thoughts about P4 and systems biology, at: john_russell@bio-itworld.com.

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