Pioneering Seattle biologist wins top cash prize for his inventions

Dr. Leroy Hood, a pioneer of high-speed gene-sequencing machines that made the Human Genome Project possible, has been awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest cash prize for inventors.

Hood, 64, is president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, a Seattle nonprofit research center that has gathered a team of scientists across disciplines in an effort to someday predict and prevent diseases.

Tonight in Boston, Hood will receive the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT cash prize that recognizes his life's work of creating technologies to push the boundaries of biology. Hood said the money will be poured into his family foundation, which works to improve education, conservation and science.

Hood said the award validates his philosophy of splitting time between developing new technologies and biology, which an early adviser discouraged, thinking he would be better off concentrating on one discipline.

"This is a validation of the fundamental importance technology has played in the past, and how it has changed biology and medicine," Hood said.

Hood said he considers the latest recognition in the same league as his other top awards, the Lasker Award and the Kyoto Prize. He has not won the Nobel Prize.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize was first awarded in 1994, with the aim of raising the profile of inventors, particularly in the eyes of young people, to the level of rock stars or pro athletes. Past winners include the inventor of the Segway self-balancing transporter, and the two scientists who developed genetic engineering, the technique that gave birth to the biotech industry.

Hood was singled out by the Lemelson-MIT committee for inventing four instruments during his days in the 1980s at Cal Tech that have greatly advanced biology. The most significant was the automated gene-sequencing machine, which made it possible for scientists to map the 3 billion letters of genetic code at the high speeds needed for the Human Genome Project. Hood said the team that did it had about 25 key contributors, including himself.

"More than any person, Dr. Hood has brought about the revolution in genomics that we'll all be enjoying in years to come," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT program and an honored MIT inventor and professor.

Hood's recruitment by Bill Gates to the University of Washington in 1991 put Seattle biotechnology on the map and attracted other scientific stars to the university. Hood also played a role in founding or co-founding several biotech companies, such as Applied Biosystems, Amgen, Rosetta Inpharmatics and Darwin Molecular. He left the UW in late 1999.

In Hood's latest work, scientists are currently working to understand the immune system as the basis for better vaccines, as well as creating new instruments to analyze bioterrorism agents. In the next 10 to 15 years, Hood said he also believes tools will exist to sequence an entire person's genome for $1,000 or less, ushering in the era of prevention and personalized treatments.

"This maybe will have more impact than anything I've done before," Hood said.

Dr. Leroy Hood

Title: Co-founder and president, Institute for Systems Biology

Age: 64

Award: Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention, $500,000 cash

Accomplishment: Hood is being honored tonight for leading the team at Cal Tech that pioneered high-speed gene-sequencing machines, the tools that made the Human Genome Project possible.