What would medicine be like if we could predict the ailments that an individual might get in the future and completely personalise their healthcare instead of waiting for people to become ill and then treating them? Within the next 5-20 years this radical new approach to medicine will be common place and drug companies are already adopting a ‘systems’ approach to developing new medicines.

Dr Leroy Hood is President and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. He opened the way to the Human Genome Project by developing DNA sequencing and was in London to give The Royal Academy of Engineering’s UK Focus for Biomedical Engineering lecture last night (13 November). The event was generously sponsored by Lovells.

Dr Hood has pioneered thinking about biology as an information system, harnessing the power of computing to understand both the tiny building blocks like genes and proteins and also the harmony with which they fit together as a whole.

He and his research group are developing powerful new technologies enabling rapid blood tests specific to particular organs in the body. They have found that individual organs deliver a unique fingerprint of proteins into the bloodstream, and that this fingerprint changes when an organ is diseased – and it changes in specific ways for different diseases, opening the way to rapid and precise diagnosis. This offers the promise of advance warning of some diseases, long before symptoms develop and when the disease would be more treatable – cancer is an obvious application.

Their recent work has been to demonstrate the concept in large organs, primarily the brain and the liver, which deliver strong protein fingerprints. They have also looked at the prostate and are starting studies on the lung. They plan to develop a ‘lab on a chip’ that will eventually monitor around 2,500 proteins that signal the health of 50 organs and tissues in the body – at present they can analyse about 20.

Already the work has produced similar fingerprints for prion disease, which causes BSE and vCJD in humans. Studies in mice show that it might be possible to develop a blood test to identify those who are infected and could also help in testing experimental treatments for these diseases.

“Complexity is the major challenge for biology and medicine in the 21st century and we need to view biology as an informational science,” says Dr Hood. He added that, “This is a revolution in medicine and our prion studies show the power of using an engineering systems approach to diagnosis.”

Notes for editors

  1. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  2. The UK Focus for Biomedical Engineering provides a forum through which the principal organisations concerned with biomedical engineering can communicate, debate and act jointly upon issues which affect the field as a whole. It seeks to influence high level decision makers in the Department of Health, central government, research funding sources and industry by highlighting the important contribution that biomedical engineering makes to healthcare and by encouraging industry to exploit the opportunities available in this field.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. +44 (0) 20 7766 0636