Leroy Hood: Discovery Science pg. 6
In recognition of these efforts, the three scientists were awarded the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 1987. That year Tonegawa was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize. Hood admits he was disappointed not to be selected to share the award. “On the other hand, you do science for the fun of doing science, you don’t do it to win prizes,” he says.
Meanwhile, Hood was getting his first taste of the blossoming biotech industry. Nineteen companies turned down his proposal to commercialize the gas-liquid phase protein sequencer that he and Michael Hunkapiller, a senior research fellow in his lab, developed in the late 1970s, even though it was 100 times more sensitive than current equipment, and capable of sequencing important yet relative scarce proteins like the prion.
A venture capitalist from San Francisco, Bill Bowes, had heard that Hood was shopping his instrument unsuccessfully, and offered up $2 million to start a company to market the sequencer. The result was Applied Biosystems, today part of Applera Corp. and a world-leader in molecular instrumentation.
In the spring of 1985, Lee Hood was one of a dozen scientists who gathered in Santa Cruz, Calif. to discuss whether sequencing the human genome was a good idea. It was the first meeting ever held on the Human Genome Project.
Hood recognized that a new approach to science would come from having this comprehensive cache of biological information. This radical new opportunity, he realized, held enormous promise for human health. With the new tools, it would be possible to identify defective genes, the first step toward understanding their roles in human disease and how to overcome their dysfunction.
His lab at Caltech already had developed a unique cross-disciplinary culture of biologists and technologists, but Hood wanted to go further. So in 1987, he applied for and received funding from the National Science Foundation to transform his lab into “Science and Technology Center.”
During the next five years, the center cut the first turf in the field of proteomics, and helped pioneer the technology for putting oligonucleotides, single-stranded pieces of DNA, on “chips.” DNA chips have greatly accelerated genetic research.
Shaking the Etch-A-Sketch comes at a price, however. When Hood proposed a new Division of Molecular Biotechnology, the Biology Department – which would have been its administrative home -- balked at the technological direction his lab was taking.
Convinced at this point that his cross-disciplinary vision of science was essential to biological discovery, Hood moved his lab to the University of Washington School of Medicine in 1992. With $12 million of support from Microsoft founder and Seattle native Bill Gates, Hood established the Molecular Biotechnology Department.
The new department thrived, deepening and expanding the efforts of the transferred Science and Technology Center. It spawned two of the 16 Genome Centers that worked on the Human Genome Project, and gave rise to a multitude of industrial collaborations. The center also developed ink-jet printer technology for making DNA chips, and a fluorescence-activated cell sorter of unprecedented power.