An In Depth Look at the Father of Systems Biology

November 23, 2016

Hood: Trailblazer of the Genomics Age
Luke Timmerman
Bandera Press, 2016

By Mary Chitty, Library Director & Taxonomist, Cambridge Healthtech Institute  

November 28, 2016 | Luke Timmerman, veteran biotech journalist, and editor of the Timmerman Report has produced a page-turner biography of biologist and biotech entrepreneur Leroy “Lee” Hood. Timmerman calls his work, “not an officially authorized biography, but an independent work of journalism, based on more than thirty hours of interviews with Hood, plus interviews with more than one hundred friends, family and critics.” Timmerman describes Hood as “a blur of energy, a force of personality stronger than any scientist or CEO I have interviewed before or since. His entrepreneurial drive was the source of his greatness and his troubles.”

Hood will certainly be familiar to many Bio-IT World readers, but Timmerman’s narrative provides valuable insights into the man, biology, and biotechnology, much as Walter Isaccson’s Steve Jobs did for Jobs and computers.

Hood was a high school debater and quarterback of an undefeated football team, mountain climber, president of his CalTech undergraduate class of 1960, and earned an MD/PhD. Hood’s doctoral thesis adviser, William Dreyer, gave him two pieces of advice he remembered: “if you’re going to do something in biology, be at the leading edge. It’s much more fun there… If you really want to change a field, invent a new technology.”

But in Hood’s early career, biology had an anti-technology bias and limited enthusiasm for computation. Hood’s team at CalTech developed the automated DNA sequencer commercialized by Applied Biosystems. The novel Jurassic Park references “Hood gene sequencers” (though Hood thought the book “incredibly hostile to science.”)

Hood left CalTech in 1992 for the University of Washington. Bill Gates gave $12 million to help fund the William H Gates III Professor of Biomedical Sciences position, and a new multi-disciplinary Department of Molecular Biotechnology. By the late 1990s, Hood was advocating for systems biology, and in 2000 resigned from the University of Washington to found the Institute for Systems Biology.

We are still at the early stages of personalized medicine. There are many uncertainties, and that is also true of Hood’s systems biology. It is easy to forget just how much biology has changed in the past decades. Embracing innovative technologies “didn’t gain broad acceptance until the mid to late 1990s,” Timmerman observes. “Lee’s view was rational, that this was the direction biology needed to go.”

Biology increasingly demands teams of collaborating scientists, and Timmerman describes many of the players that have contributed to Hood’s accomplishments (with controversies over credit and acknowledgements) and were part of the genomics ecosystem, names such as Mike and Tim Hunkapiller, Ruedi Aebersold, Eric Lander, Phil Green, Trey Ideker, Maynard Olsen, and Lloyd Smith..

Hood is great at starting things. He is a visionary and has been successful in an astonishing variety of biology specialties, first in immunology, then working with proteins, and then DNA.

At a time when biotech needs to manage expectations for personalized medicine, bridge silos among disciplines to truly make progress in the many challenges to bringing new drugs to market for unmet medical needs and inspire students—and citizens—to be excited about science and understand how to make things happen, this book is highly recommended.

Editor's note: Books may be sent to the review editor for consideration at 250 First Ave. Ste 300, Needham, MA 02494