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Why genomic pioneer Lee Hood hopes the covid-19 pandemic will make precision medicine based on personalized patient data a reality



Jim Heath

Davis believes the key to understanding why covid affects people in such varied ways is to identify the differences between the immune systems of those who successfully fight the disease and those who succumb. Those differences could range from the simple, such as whether someone has been exposed to other coronaviruses in the past, to factors as complex as genetically determined variations in how certain cells display viral protein fragments on their surfaces for inspection by circulating immune cells. These proteins can influence how likely the immune cell is to recognize the presence of a dangerous pathogen, sound the alarm, and mobilize an army of antibodies to go on the attack.

“Now there is a flood of data, and it’s the highest quality that we’ve ever had, and also the most we’ve ever had,” Davis says. 

A boon for the science, to be sure. But will the ISB study change how patients are treated and help prepare us for future pandemics? Hood is optimistic. “This absolutely validates everything I have been arguing for the past 20 years,” he says. 

The needed tools

Hood made a major contribution to immunology early in his career, after attending medical school and getting his PhD from Caltech. He helped solve the mystery of how the body can produce roughly 10 billion varieties of antibodies, Y-shaped proteins that can bind to the outer surface of a distinctly shaped invading pathogen and destroy it with the specificity of a guided missile. 

Despite his early success, Hood recognized from the start that without major advances in technology, he would never answer the most intriguing biological questions that remained about the immune system: those revealing how it coordinates its remarkably complex collection of cell types and proteins. If immunologists were ever to understand how all these parts worked together, Hood realized, they would first need to recognize, characterize, and measure them. 

Jim Heath, president of the Institute for Systems Biology


Hood’s Caltech lab played a key role in developing a wide range of tools, including instruments that would enable biologists to read and write sequences of amino acids, and machines that could string together DNA nucleotides (the letters of the genetic code). Perhaps most famously, in 1986 he helped invent the automated DNA sequencer, a machine able to quickly read the nucleotides in the genome and determine their order; it paved the way for the Human Genome Project, the $3 billion, 13-year effort to produce the first draft of a complete human genome. 

In the years that followed, Hood advocated for a reinvention of modern health care that relied on the new tools of molecular biology to collect data from individual patients: genome sequences, and complete inventories of proteins circulating in the bloodstream. This data could then be analyzed, using early systems of machine learning and pattern recognition to pull out interesting patterns and correlations. Insights could be harnessed to maximize a person’s health and head off diseases far earlier than previously possible. 

It all made perfect scientific sense. But nearly two decades after the Human Genome Project’s completion in 2003, and despite much progress in genomic sciences as well as in data science, Hood’s predicted revolution in health care has still not arrived. 

Hood says one reason is that the tools used to be expensive. Now, however, a genome can be sequenced for $300 or less. And, he says, researchers have gained access to computational tools “that can really integrate the data, and turn data into knowledge.” 

But the biggest roadblock is that the health-care system is inefficient and resistant to change. There’s a “lack of understanding about how important it is to get diverse types of data and integrate them,” Hood says. “Most physicians went to medical school five or 10 or 20 years ago, and they never learned anything about any of this.”

“Everybody is really busy, and changing takes time, so you have to persuade leadership as well as physicians this is in their interest,” he says. “That all turned out to be far more difficult than I ever thought it would be.” 

Pandemic lessons

These days, Hood is still pushing hard, and despite the years of frustration, he is characteristically optimistic. One reason for his renewed hope is that he finally has ready access to patients  and the money to begin his next grand experiment. 

In 2016, ISB merged with Providence Health & Services in Seattle, a massive network with 51 hospitals, billions of dollars in cash, and a hunger to develop a more robust research program. 

Soon after the merger, Hood was talking up an impossibly ambitious-­sounding campaign to start what he calls the Million Person Project. It would apply phenotyping and genetic analysis to, yes, a million people. In January 2020, Hood kicked off a pilot project, having recruited 5,000 patients, and began to sequence their genomes. 


Investing in women pays off



Investing in women pays off

“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late



Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking



The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions

Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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