Health Tech Podcast

Well being Tech Podcast: A ‘tricorder’ in your house? Pioneer Lee Hood on the way forward for well being expertise

Lee Hood, biologist and genomics pioneer, in the GeekWire studio. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

“I envision a time, in the 10-year future, when we’ll have a tricorder and you at home will put a drop of blood on the tricorder and it’ll make 5,000 measurements,” Lee Hood told me.

If it were anyone else, I would be highly skeptical of such a dramatic prediction. The idea of an all-purpose, in-home health sensor sounds like science fiction. The analogy to the classic ‘Star Trek’ tricorder doesn’t help.

But coming from Hood, the prediction sounds more than convincing. Hood is a biologist and a genomics pioneer who has, over the course of a prolific career, shaped health technology in more ways than can be counted.

He invented the first automated DNA sequencer, which enabled the Human Genome Project, along with a half-dozen other devices. His Institute for Systems Biology has reshaped how biology is taught and studied across the world, and his more recent work — including Arivale, the startup he co-founded in 2014 — is focused on bringing data-driven changes to the healthcare system. In 2016, the Institute for Systems Biology associated with Providence St. Joseph Health, where Hood is now advocating for those changes as the health system’s chief science officer.

Hood is our guest on the most recent episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast, where we discussed his history with engineering, how the health technology landscape has changed in the past four decades and what the future looks like for scientific wellness and tech-driven health.

Hood has a unique take on biology, partly because of his history with engineering.

“My father was an electrical engineer that worked for AT&T in a very small town in Montana. He used to give, in the summers, courses to his men on circuit design and systems engineering and had me take the courses, I think mostly to show me off,” Hood said. “I hated them at the time, but I ended up learning a lot of engineering and it shaped how I thought about biology.”

Hood’s view of biology shapes most everything he does. He embraces the overwhelming complexity of biology — driven, he says, by millions of years of Darwinian evolution. He accepts that there won’t be simple, clear-cut answers to health problems and that the more we learn about our health, the more complicated it becomes.

That’s especially true in an age of big data when genetic sequencing is giving us unprecedented insight into every cell in our bodies. One of Hood’s most recent projects is developing the idea of scientific wellness, using genetics, fitness tracking and other biometric data to help people maximize their health.

“I like to liken the big data of scientific wellness as being equivalent to the Hubble telescope,” he said. “The Hubble telescope was able to look out and examine the heavens with a resolution heretofore unachieved, and exactly the same is true of what we call dense, dynamic personal data clouds. These let you view biology and disease with a resolution we’d never before had.”

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Hood’s vision of the future of health relies heavily on these dense, dynamic personal data clouds and the model of scientific wellness. It turns out there’s a lot we can learn about our health from our genome alone, with some help from a doctor or health coach.

“For example, there are about 300 [genetic] variants that control athletic injuries and so forth. So if you know you have a predisposition for that, often you can do exercises to avoid that kind of thing. Number two, almost all of us are deficient for genes that are important in nutrition, metabolism and things, and knowing those defects, then you can add supplements or minerals or vitamins that take care of those,” Hood said.

How effectively scientific wellness changes people’s health is still up in the air. The Institute for Systems Biology studied 108 people who received scientific wellness coaching and found preliminary signs of success, but a wider study is still underway.

Hood is also pushing for health systems to incorporate values that he calls P4 medicine: Healthcare that is predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory.

Of course, the health system would need to change dramatically to make scientific wellness and P4 medicine the norm. Currently, we place an emphasis on treating people after they’ve developed a disease instead of proactively avoiding disease, a tradition only enforced by ballooning healthcare costs. That’s beginning to change, but scientific wellness will still need to brave challenges like the U.S.’s complex health insurance structure and the traditional culture inside health providers.

Despite that, Hood has confidence the health system writ large will buy into his ideas. Providence St. Joseph Health, one of the biggest health systems in the country, has already done so. It acquired the Institute for Systems Biology in 2016 and 1,000 Providence employees are currently enrolled an ISB study on scientific wellness.

Lee says changes to the scientific wellness model — and the health system overall — are needed before a truly tech-focused health system can be realized.

“I think in the future, we’re going to do everything in the home, more or less. You’ll send the test results off to an analytics center, and maybe there’ll be an avatar that will call you up and be your scientific wellness coach and give you the results,” Hood said.

The avatar isn’t a flippant prediction — like everything else, it fits into Hood’s vision. He said the expertise of health coaches is the biggest limiting factor in making scientific wellness truly available to everyone.

“Each coach can perhaps deal with 100 people and maybe — with help and software and things like that — maybe they could even deal with 500. But if you’re talking about 350 million people in the U.S., that’s a horrendous number of coaches. So are there other ways we could do coaching in the distant future? And avatars, I think, would be one really exciting possibility,” Hood said.

Given the advances already made, and what Hood expects in the coming decades, I wondered: Will there be a day when every person’s genome is sequenced when — or before — they are born? Could our future children know a world where almost every disease or injury that could befall them is prevented before it happens?

“I think that’s a superb suggestion. I’d like to see that happen tomorrow,” Hood said. “I envision a time, in the 10-year future, when we’ll have a tricorder and you at home will put a drop of blood on the tricorder and it’ll make 5,000 measurements and operationally give you all the kinds of things we can get from Arivale now.”

And at 79, Hood has no plans to retire — he fully expects to be around for the next 10 years and beyond to shape his visions for health into reality.

“I want to bring systems medicine and P4 healthcare and scientific wellness into the healthcare system. I want to use these dense dynamic personal data clouds as a fundamental part of every clinical trial,” he said. “That’s what I want to do for the next 20 years, and I think we’ll do it.”

Editor’s Note: GeekWire’s Health Tech podcast is sponsored by Providence St. Joseph Health’s Digital and Innovation Group. Lee Hood serves as a senior vice president and chief science officer at Providence, which acquired his Institute for Systems Biology in 2016, but Providence was not involved in Hood’s appearance on the podcast.

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