TR: What technologies are you developing?
Hood: We are working on ink-jet synthesizers that can be used to build oligonucleotide gene chips [stamp-sized wafers capable of analyzing thousands of genes at a time] in a more flexible manner than can be done with the alternative technology-photolithography. We are setting up a very large-scale proteomics production line [to identify and characterize proteins and their functions]. This is a very important technology for the post-genomic era. We’re working on sophisticated cell sorters that will be able to take complex populations of cells and very rapidly separate different cell types. We are working on new ways of determining protein-protein and protein-DNA interactions. These technologies are high throughput and global in nature-they look at all or most genes or proteins. At the same time, we are attempting to develop software that is good for the visualization of biological complexity, software that can automate the process of building and optimizing the models. Obviously, we have to develop computational tools that will capture information from each of these different technologies.
Hood: One area that is important to the institute is human genetic variation and its correlation with physiology or disease predisposition. We are developing technologies for identifying and typing human variation more effectively in large populations. We are also very interested in immunity, stem cell research, and cancer. In addition, we are using yeast as a model system to work out our high-throughput technologies and our strategies for doing systems biology.
TR: Any plans to commercialize this work?
Hood: We are more than ready to spin out intellectual property to industry. We can either license the intellectual property to preexisting companies, or we can spin it out as new companies. Over the past year, we have already spun out two companies: MacroGenics, which uses the tools of genomics and proteomics to discover targets on cancer cells that can be used for immune-system-based therapies; and Cytopeia, which is developing technologies to further multiparameter, high-speed cell sorting and enlarge its applications. The forte of the Institute is not doing short-term research, but rather taking on long-term, challenging problems.
TR: Those long-term problems are the sort you’ve said are best tackled in an academic setting-yet in the past few years you felt you weren’t able to do so at the University of Washington. Do you think the obstacles you encountered there are endemic to universities these days?
Hood: I do. The question is a very interesting one: are universities going to be able to compete in this new world of post-genome biology? The issue is open. As I noted earlier, the issues center around leadership, flexibility, timeliness, resources-and very new ways of doing science. It has been a struggle for me for the last five years. But possibly these changes will come more easily now that we understand the issues and the opportunities that are emerging from systems biology. What is clear is that this approach will transform biology and medicine.