April 28, 2005
Leroy Hood Sees Great Advances In Biomedical Testing Devices

Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology says nanotech-based devices will make thousands of blood measurements from a person's blood sample within 5 to 8 years.

"We will over the next five to eight years have a measurement device, a nanotechnology device, that can make thousands of measurements very rapidly and very inexpensively," he said, referring to blood protein analysis.

Patterns in blood proteins and other compounds will be used to ascertain the status of every organ in the body.

"Each human organ has, through the blood, a unique molecular fingerprint that reports the status of that organ. Hence, if we can read these blood molecular fingerprints, we will have the capacity to assess health and diseases," he said.

Back around 1980 or 1981 while Hood was still at Cal Tech (i.e. before Bill Gates put up a lot of money to get him to move to the University of Washington) Hood developed the first automated DNA sequencer using a mass spectrometer that was originally developed for a Mars probe (Mariner I think). I saw Hood deliver a talk about this device at that time when he visited a different university. One thing stood out in my mind: The instrument was so sensitive that he had a lab tech working full time taking the purest available commercial grade reagents and purifying the reagents further to make them pure enough for this instrument. Yet the instrument was an absolute marvel compared to more manual methods of DNA sequencing that were then in use. Well, since then DNA sequencing has become several orders of magnitude cheaper and faster and in the next couple of decades will most certainly become still several more orders of magnitude cheaper and easier. So will a larger array of other biological and medical tests.

Testing costs will plummet in the next decade and the range of what is testable will expand by orders of magnitude. Within 20 years (and probably much sooner for people managing some chronic diseases) we'll have minilabs embedded in us measuring our blood that will be readable by radio signals. We'll also be able to spit and breathe into devices in our bathrooms that will quickly analyse for signs of hundreds and maybe even thousands of illnesses. Even toilets will eventually have embedded disease detection sensors.

Hood also foresees a coming shift in medicine from reaction to diseases to predicting diseases before diseases happen so that diseases can be prevented.

Hood predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years, systems biology will provide two breakthroughs: First, it will allow physicians to predict an individual's health makeup -- his genetic predispositions and other key indicators that might make him healthy or sick. Second, it will provide powerful new tools for preventing disease.

"We'll move from a mode of medicine that's largely reactive to one that's predictive and preventive," he says.

Diseases will be detected at much earlier stages. This will not always help. Some known diseases exist in all adults at very early stages and yet we currently can't do anything about them. For example, most middle aged people already have cancerous cells in their bodies. Really, I'm not making this up. We have cancer cells that are stuck in small areas because they have not yet mutated to start secreting compounds which cause blood vessels to grow (pro-angiogenesis compounds as distinct from anti-angiogenesis compounds which are used against some forms of cancer). So our cancers are stuck in half millimeter nodes between capillaries and have reached the limits of their ability to grow given the amount of food and oxygen they can acquire from existing blood vessels nearby.

The mutational events that allow early stage cancers to start secreting angiogenesis enhancing compounds are probably impossible to predict. Too much randomness is involved in mutation to allow precise predictions to be made. Though some genetic sequences will no doubt be found that make such mutations more or less likely to happen. What we need at this stage is the ability to kill those early stage cancers that sit there for decades waiting for a mutation that will free them from their food limits and set them off growing. We also need the ability to kill senescent cells that secrete compounds which encourage the growth of cancer cells (and that is not the only bad thing senescent cells do btw).

Still, precise disease prediction will be feasible for many diseases. For example, I would expect disease prediction to be much more feasible for osteoarthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, and other ailments that strike once sufficient damage has accumulated over time. Also, predictive capabilities will become more useful as our toolbox of treatments expands. Why wait for a knee to become painful and severely damaged if we can detect the problem years earlier and send in stem cells to do repairs before repair becomes much more difficult?

Disease prediction will also provide much greater incentive for changes in behavior. If your doctor can tell you that you will definitely get kidney failure in 12 to 15 years or heart disease in 20 to 25 years if you do not change your ways you'll have a much greater incentive to shape up and take blood pressure medicine or cholesterol lowering drugs or to improve your diet and get more exercise. Embedded sensors could even be combined with your PDA or wrist watch to warn you when your stress level from lousy food, lack of sleep, or lack of exercise has gotten high enough to accelerate your damage accumulation rate above some level that you decide is acceptable.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 April 28 09:56 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

Dave said at April 29, 2005 10:39 AM:

These are all VERY good things. If I KNOW what day I will get Cancer - I, my parents and close friends will move hell and high water to create CURES before my personal expiration date. People with similar fates will join together to defeat the problem with vastly greater energy, determination and financial support than they do now.

These advances will gradually call into question the viability of health insurance. Insurance is based on spreading statistically discoverable medical risks across a large population - so that those with high risk can be subsidized by those with low risk. Once one can determine at the individual level what the risk actually is, insurance become prepaid medical payments.

Randall Parker said at April 29, 2005 11:43 AM:


But you have cancer already.

I saw a lecture by Judah Folkman (Harvard Med researcher who first proposed anti-angiogenesis compounds as a method to treat cancer) where he discussed a study done on tissues taken from middle aged and elderly people who died from illnesses other than cancer. 99+% of all thyroid glands of late middle aged people have lots of small cancers in them that have reached their limit to grow due to lack of angiogenesis factors to grow new capillaries. Some of the other organs were found to have cancer 30, 40, 50% of the time.

So you have cancer all over your body. It is all waiting for a mutation in angiogenesis factor producing genes. Then of course it grows but still under the limit of telomeres until telomerase mutations allow the cancer cells to break free of that limitation. Then mutations that enable metastasis eventualy happen and the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. Then you die.

Granted the ability to forecast diseases will motivate people to be much more supportive of medical research.

The finer granularity cancer detection methods will cause more people to absolutely know that they have cancer and in many cases they will know literally decades in advance that they have cancer. So you are right. Even in the case of cancer early detection will lead to greater support for development of treatments.

My guess: The certain knowledge that one has some disease will provide greater benefit in the form of greater motivation to support acceleratin of medical treatment than it will in the form of immediate treatment delivered in response to the early diagnoses. Our problem is that we do not have treatments for many diseases. We need motivated citizenry to support biomedical research. Early diagnosis will provide the needed motivation.

Dave said at April 29, 2005 1:54 PM:

so you agree :-)

Cancer ridden,

Rsilvetz said at April 30, 2005 9:41 AM:

Don't underestimate the tumor surveillance system. Given the numbers of cell that have to go malignant it's amazing we are all not walking tumors by 40.

I expect genetic engineering and the current advances in bleeding edge immunotherapy (my bread and butter) will be able to transform cancer into a chronic disease this decade and totally reverse it in the next and very shortly thereafter total prevention.

So most folks reading this post should look forward to old age without the scourge of cancer.

Darius said at May 1, 2005 12:35 AM:

There are just going to be a whole crop of new tumors as people live longer. It's going to be a race between decaying bodies and technology that tries to predict abnormalities. Will these be able to judge if a person needs to be cured? Will they identify new unknown diseases? I think the only true way to live healthier (not just longer) is to find a rejuvinating cure for cells and the organism as a whole. After that the problem will be trying to keep tens, hundreds, thousands of billions of people from killing each other for scarce resources. This is going to sound like a very stupid joke, but I suspect some alien species from outer space is just going to nuke us because we are nuts.

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