When I was a Ph.D. candidate at Caltech in the 1960s, my advisor told me that I should always practice biology at the leading edge—it’s more fun there. He also told me that if you want to fundamentally change the way a discipline, such as medicine, is practiced, invent a new technology.
Technology was the focus of my interest in human complexity. It occurred to me that medicine at the time was like the blind people and the elephant. Each was feeling a different part of the animal and declaring it was a spear, or a fan, or a stump. That was an especially apt analogy for medicine at the time, because the blind people were all feeling the outside of the elephant.
I was convinced that we needed more tools to plumb the complexity of the human body. We needed a way to look inside the elephant. Blood, I realized, is a window into health and disease because it bathes all organs, which release their telltale molecules. If you could read these molecules, you could infer the state of the internal organs.
Another important tool is big data. We needed to generate an enormous amount of data, not only about our genes, but also our phenomes. In other words, we needed to analyze the complex interactions between the individual and the environment, and how these interactions affect our health.
Years later, after my colleagues and I invented DNA sequencers and other technologies aimed at peering inside the elephant, we realized that we needed to use these tools for the purpose of keeping people well. The future of health care lay in our ability to predict the onset of disease, prevent it from happening, and doing this in a way that was personalized to the individual. In recent years we have gotten pretty good at the three Ps—predicting, preventing and personalizing—but we need to add a fourth: participation. We need to use the best tools of behavioral psychology to engage people in being active participants in maintaining their own health.
This story is the evolution of what we’re now calling scientific wellness.
We now have the tools and the know-how to increase the number of healthy years a person can expect to live. We know how to improve the quality of people’s lives, attend to an aging population and handle a steady rise in chronic disease. We can do these things for less money than we now spend on an outdated paradigm of medicine—treating illness rather than preventing it in the first place. And we can use these tools to fashion a more equitable and compassionate system of health care that helps many of the least fortunate people among us who are currently left out.
Changing big institutions is never easy—and that is especially true for the multi-trillion-dollar medical industry. Making this vision of well care a reality will require a radical change in how we think about health care.
In the meantime, a new generation of scientists and engineers are building the tools.
Leroy Hood is CEO of Phenome Health, a nonprofit devoted to scientific wellness. He is also co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology and has been involved in the founding of 15 biotechnology companies, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, Arivale and Nanostring.
Find out more about Phenome Health’s efforts to transform the future of health care here. Learn more about phenomics, the new science of wellness, in other stories in this special report.