Leroy Hood: Discovery Science  pg. 7

Body as system

A concept had been marinating in Hood’s mind since the early 1990s—systems biology, the study of the interaction of all the elements in a system, be that a cell or an organism, rather than studying one gene or one protein at a time. Hood’s lab moved increasingly toward a systems approach in its research efforts, using global technologies to study prostate cancer as well as bone marrow stem cells and autoimmune disease.

In 1996, Hood proposed the creation of an Institute for Systems Biology at the University of Washington, to be modeled after the successful Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Three years of discussion were not enough to clear the path of administrative obstacles, however, so in December 1999, Hood resigned to co-found an independent institute with faculty colleagues Alan Aderem and Ruedi Aebersold.

Originally housed near the University of Washington campus, the Institute for Systems Biology now occupies a new building, not far away, on the shore of Lake Union. The design of the three-story facility consciously reflects the mission.

The open floor plan encourages flow from one work group to the next – cubicles of biologists adjoin those of physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers, and chemists. Labs are quietly efficient, the din from banks of instrumentation sequestered in windowed rooms across from rows of streamlined workbenches. Walls are painted with the colors of nature – sunflower, olive, burnt sienna, deep lilac – and pools of sunlight fall into nooks furnished with overstuffed chairs.

Lee Hood blends into the background here, though his schedule on any given day is anything but inconspicuous. One recent morning, Hood addressed a delegation of Taiwanese scientists, ministers, and business leaders on cooperative biotechnology ventures. Afterward, he gave a tour of the facility to U.S. Congressman Adam Smith.

As they walked, the two discussed the best way to identify an agent used in a bioterrorist attack and why intellectual property rights are important to the development of drugs. By noon, Hood was across town, addressing the Democratic Leadership Council on the ethical and social consequences of the biotechnology revolution.

Some research efforts, especially the use of embryonic stem cells, have led to calls for greater government regulation over what scientists can do in the laboratory. Hood agrees that the research should be monitored; where he disagrees is at what point. “Our responsibility is not to block the creative discovery process, but to carefully shepherd and control the applications of the technologies for the good of society,” he says. “Technology is going to present society with enormous opportunities and enormous challenges.

“We must educate ourselves so that we can participate in the social decision-making process, balancing these opportunities and challenges,” Hood adds. “Only if we think rationally and analytically, and are at least informed about the basic facts of what biology and biotechnology is about, can we think effectively about these social and ethical issues.”

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