TR: What is functional genomics? Why has it become such a hot topic in biology and biotechnology?
SCHULTZ: There are between 100,000 and 200,000 distinct genes in the human genome. The sequence [of the entire human genome] will probably be complete this year or next and be in the public domain in 2002. The most immediate impact the gene sequence will have on the average person is in the development of new diagnostics for disease and new targets for drug development. The question is, what are the cellular and physiological functions of those genes? And how can we modulate those functions to, for example, treat disease?
TR: Answering those questions is the mission of your institute?
SCHULTZ: Yes, we want to deduce the function of a particular gene product [each gene codes for a protein], then learn how that protein interacts with other molecules in an organism and how to modulate the function of that particular protein. We want to understand the function of these proteins and their role in the cell and organism. The result will hopefully be the ability to create small molecules, proteins or genes themselves that act as human therapeutics.
TR: You left the University of California, Berkeley, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute to head the new institute. What was the attraction?
SCHULTZ: The sequence of the human genome is determined once in the history of mankind. It’s a unique time in biology and chemistry-equivalent to the advent of quantum mechanics in physics. The question is-how do we begin to understand and assimilate the huge amount of information encoded in the genome? The other revolution that has occurred during the last 10 years in the biological and physical sciences is in the way in which we carry out experimental science. There’s been a tremendous increase in our ability to design, implement and analyze experiments-to carry them out not one at a time but thousands or millions at a time. That has been made possible by combinatorial technologies, computational tools and advances in engineering and miniaturization-the kind of tools and processes that revolutionized the semiconductor industry are being moved over into the biological and physical sciences. The bottom line is that without that set of tools it would be damn near impossible to deal with the huge amount of information related to the human genome.
TR: Aren’t there a lot of other research groups working in the field of functional genomics these days? In other words, isn’t there a lot of competition out there for the institute?
SCHULTZ: But very few people have attempted to bring together all the tools under one roof and use them synergistically to understand gene function. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s something that’s difficult in a conventional university setting, because it requires focused efforts and dedicated resources. It’s difficult to do in biotech companies because they usually have one mission or goal. And it’s difficult to do in a big pharmaceutical company because there’s a product focus. I view this place as a new Bell Labs of biology: a tremendous technological infrastructure with small, highly collaborative groups.
TR: What do you anticipate will be the payoff? Will it lead to faster or more efficient drug discovery?
SCHULTZ: The mission isn’t drug discovery. It’s biological discovery and improved technologies for making those discoveries. But the point is that nowadays very little time passes between when an important biological advance is made and when people begin to try and exploit that advance for human therapeutics. If someone makes a discovery involving the underlying molecular basis for Alzheimer’s disease, the next day the pharmaceutical industry will begin implementing drug discovery programs based on that new insight. Likewise, if you discover what genes are important in longevity, or in cognition, that’s a fundamental scientific discovery, but very shortly thereafter those gene products become targets for the development of therapeutics. That fact allows a place like this to focus on biological discovery with the expectation that it’s going to lead to important biomedical advances.