Within the next 10 to 15 years, Dr. Leroy Hood predicts that the focus of health care will shift from disease treatment to prevention.
“Biology will be the dominant science of the 21st century, just as chemistry was in the 19th century and physics was in the 20th century,” said Hood, President and founder of the Institute for Systems Biology and keynote speaker at Georgia Regents University’s 31st annual Graduate Research Day. “Health care will shift from a reactive to a preventive mode in which each individual has an opportunity to experience optimal health beginning at birth.”
Hood, a systems biologist and researcher who helped pioneer the Human Genome Project and develop automated DNA sequencers, is cultivating his vision for health care through the institute’s P4 pilot project. Systems biology seeks to understand how and why complex systems behave as they do. P4 medicine stands for predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory.
“Even the simplest living cell is an incredibly complex molecular machine,” explained Hood. “In the past, biologists sought to understand living things largely by examining their constituent parts. But our researchers seek to understand not only each part, but also how those parts function together.”
Researchers at the institute are enrolling 100,000 healthy patients for the P4 project to help predict and understand the role genes play in health. The goal is to collect data on these patients over two decades through genomic and other complex tests. They’ll assess patients’ nutrition, analyze their microbiome, and perform organ-specific checkups. Grasping the countless factors contributing to disease should enable the researchers to develop tools and strategies for disease prevention and early intervention.
“For instance, if we can catch Alzheimer’s disease during the earliest transitions of the disease, then perhaps we can slow the onset by modifying a patient’s diet, exercise, and other behaviors,” said Hood.
Hood believes that physicians will be able to examine the unique biology of each person to assess the probability of developing cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases and illnesses. Physicians would then be able to prevent or treat that disease using personalized therapeutics.
“It’s really going to be spectacular,” said Hood. “We can determine the individual risk for more than 50 diseases. We will also be able to prevent unnecessary procedures and surgeries, saving the health care industry millions of dollars. Ultimately, I believe we can transform and globalize health care for the good of everyone.”