The Human Genome Project (HGP), the blueprint that represented a vital global contribution to the advancement of human health, marked its 20th anniversary this year with little notice or reflection.
Except, perhaps, for the publication by Leroy Hood, one of the key architects of that landmark project, of his book, The Age of Scientific Wellness, which may help open the door to HGP2.
Launched in October 1990 and completed in April 2003, the Human Genome Project’s signature accomplishment of generating the first sequence of the human genome provided fundamental information about the human blueprint. It has since accelerated the study of human biology and improved the practice of medicine.
It opened new avenues for research in fields such as personalized medicine, gene therapy, and genetic counseling. It has also helped us better understand the genetic basis of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Hood is actually Leroy Hood, M.D., and PhD. He got his medical degree at Johns Hopkins between undergrad and doctoral education at Caltech in Pasadena.
Hood was a professor at Caltech in the 1980s, where he developed automated methods for sequencing DNA, a process that was essential to the Human Genome Project, for which he was involved from the first meeting in 1985 at UCal Santa Cruz.
Hood was not some kid from a remote small town in Montana who found his way to a little-known small college near the mountains northeast of Los Angeles.
Caltech, officially the California Institute of Technology, is among a small group of institutes of technology in the United States and is ranked among the best academic institutions in the world. Hood, who had been guided by his grandfather and father to focus on science, was induced to go to Caltech by a teacher at Shelby High who had graduated from there and sought to convince his best students to consider going to Caltech.
And appropriately for the outcome, Hood took his advise.
Hood, co-founder the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, also coined the term “P4 medicine,” which is the idea that healthcare should be “predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory.”
Hood envisions a healthcare future and his book details the path, with his Human Phenome Initiative mapping the way, to achieve his goal: “I want to see people move into their ‘90s (and beyond) excited, creative and functional.”
He sees the key change from healthcare of today to the healthcare of the future hinges on the optimization of individual wellness and early detection of wellness-to-disease transitions, offering the potential for reversal before the emergence of clinically diagnosable disease.
The 13-year Human Genome Project was launched by the U.S. Department of Energy, which pitched it to Congress in 1987, and the National Institute of Health. Both funded the $2.7 billion cost, with support from organizations in other countries.
Now Hood offers a look at HGP2, and he might suggest the 20th anniversary of the original HGP as a logical time to launch “2,” The Human Phenome Initiative.
That’s an ambitious plan conceived at Phenome Health, the nonprofit that Hood founded in 2021 to advance a science and data-driven approach to optimize the brain and body health of individuals.
This Project would analyze the genomes and phenomes of one million individuals across the US over 10 years with the individuals selected to reflect the racial and demographic diversity of the U.S. It’s an enormously ambitious endeavor that he believes will demonstrate to the world the power of P4 healthcare.
Hood notes that the realization of P4 health will depend on many moving parts, but no tool will be more important than artificial intelligence.
Systems are already transforming healthcare. But Hood sees those changes accelerating to such a degree that “AI will soon be as much a part of our healthcare experience as doctors, nurses, waiting rooms and pharmacies.”
“In fact,” Hood suggests, “it won’t be long before AI has mostly replaced or redefined all of those.”
And Hood’s view of the future is of one built on scientific wellness in which interaction with artificial intelligence will be a normal part of healthcare.
It’s no longer news that the medical profession is expecting AI to be part of the future of medicine.
But in his book and in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal headlined “The AI will see now” and co-authored by Nathan Price, Ph.D., the co-author of his book, the pair make the point that doctors are turning to AI tools to help them make the best decisions for patients.
Price is Chief Science Officer of New York-based Thorne HealthTech, a health intelligence company focused on leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to map the biological features related to an individual’s health.
Offering interesting imagery to those aware of the mythological half-horse, half-human centaur, Hood said “We are fast approaching the time of centaur doctors. They will combine the best parts of human intelligence and AI assistance and be empowered to make bold medical decisions with far fewer unintended consequences.”
What Hood may have had in mind is that the most famous centaur in Greek mythology is Chiron, who was known for his wisdom and knowledge of medicine.
The Human Genome Project came about because of a fortunate convergence of focus of two important government departments whose leadership convinced the Reagan Administration and Congress of the project’s importance.
Hood will face an equally daunting challenge in the quest for funding for the Human Phenome Initiative. But we live in a different era in two important ways, one challenging and one fortunate.
Getting an administration and a Congress that are more focused on disruption than anything resembling cooperation and progress on something important to the future seems maximum difficult, in fact unlikely.
But on the plus side, we live in a philanthropic time when two women could either or both sign a check to match the cost of HGP2 with little pause and without the need for government,
With McKenzie Scott’s net worth of $64 billion and Melinda Gates’ $10.7 billion and both spending freely on worthy causes, it may be that all Hood needs is an audience to tell his story because he tells it well and with the authority of his accomplishments.
But congressional concern about keeping up with China has actually given the lawmakers something to agree on and may open another opportunity for Hood’s initiative.
The Global Technology Leadership Act is a bipartisan AI bill aimed at keeping up with China. It would establish an office that analyzes how the country is keeping up with China and envisions billions being spent on crucial technologies like AI,
Hood, who was a star high school quarterback in the small Montana town of Shelby and played halfback on Caltech’s football team, is proud of his athletic ability and his staying in condition. He has shared that though he is 85, his doctors say his biological age is 15 years younger.
He joked to me he actually played in 16 Rose Bowl games, to which any football-knowledgeable person would say, “can you explain that?”
Hood answered: “Caltech’s home field was the Rose Bowl, so each home game, we could look at the 200 or so fans on our side of the stadium and the 100 or so on the other side and focus on the thousands of empty seats and say ‘we’re playing a game in the Rose Bowl—a Rose Bowl game.