• The Future of Personalized Medicine

    May 15, 2014

    This Human Genome Project pioneer has peered into the future of health care, and he predicts huge changes for patients and providers.


    Biologist Leroy Hood, MD, PhD, believes that health care should move its focus from sickness to wellness. But he doesn’t see traditional healthcare organizations leading this transformative shift.

    “Within a 10-15 year period, I think the size of the wellness industry will exceed that of the healthcare industry,” Hood says. “Wellness is not going to emerge out of the current healthcare industry. New thrusts don’t emerge out of old bureaucracies. New approaches emerge out of new institutions that are set up for them.”

    Hood knows something about breakthrough change. The recipient of the 2013 National Medal of Science, Hood and his colleagues developed five instruments that allowed the mapping of the human genome. He is one of only 15 people elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

    A Data Cloud

    Within the next decade, Hood says, every person will be surrounded by a virtual cloud of data that gives a longitudinal picture of their molecules, clinical chemistries, cells, and other types of biological information. Further, scientists will have the necessary tools to determine how a patient’s genetic makeup and other factors influence the disease trajectory and help inform therapeutic decisions.

    “We are at a tipping point now. We are already starting to change the practice of medicine,” he says. For example, researchers recently demonstrated that a panel of 13 blood proteins can distinguish between benign and malignant lung nodules. A simple blood test can now save many patients with lung nodules from unnecessary surgery and related health problems—in addition to saving the U.S. healthcare system more than $3 billion a year.

    A Wellness Revolution

    But using biological data to guide treatments is just the start, says Hood. Eventually, the data cloud will be integrated and modeled to allow individuals to optimize their wellness and predict, manage, or even avoid diseases. Hood’s upcoming project is a longitudinal study that will follow 100,000 healthy individuals over 25 years. A virtual cloud of data points will be created, including genome sequences, gut microbiomes (i.e., different types of bacteria in the gut), blood protein measurements, and high-frequency digital measurements of exercise, sleep, stress, weight, and nutrition.

    “What we are trying to do is going to cause a revolution in the healthcare system where the dominant focus will become wellness. Patients are going to want to understand, for example, how they can more effectively use knowledge of their gut microbiome to optimize their nutrition,” he says. “These patients are going to want physicians who understand this new wellness- centered medicine—and not those who say, ‘I don’t know anything about human genetics or nutrition.’”

    Patient-Activated Networks

    Hood calls this revolution P4 medicine—predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory. P4 medicine will be driven by patient-activated social networks like those in the 1980s and 1990s that conducted demonstrations and protests demanding access to drugs for HIV patients, says Hood. Their activism eventually led to the triple-drug therapy that transformed HIV from a fatal disease to a chronic disease.

    “The physicians and pharmaceutical industry were against triple-drug therapy, and it was the HIV activists and their social networks that made it happen,” Hood says. “That’s the first glaring example of patient-activated social networks. These networks are going to revolutionize health care in the future.”

    Web extra: What P4 Means for Health Systems

    Leroy Hood, MD, PhD, is president, Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle. Follow Hood on Twitter @ISBLeeHood.