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Originally published Friday, December 21, 2012 at 9:36 PM

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U.S. recognizes work of biologist Leroy Hood

Seattle biologist Dr. Leroy Hood says receiving the National Medal of Science from the White House will be a validation of the decades he's spent revolutionizing DNA and molecular-biotechnology research.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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President Obama announced Friday he will give a National Medal of Science to Seattle biologist Dr. Leroy Hood, who is revered in the science community for his molecular immunology, biotechnology and genomics research.

Hood, 74, president and co-founder of the Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology, revolutionized biomedicine and forensic science when he and a team of scientists discovered how to automate DNA sequencing in the 1980s. The research has become an essential part of mapping the human genome ever since.

He's now studying ways doctors can use digitized DNA and molecular data to make more specific disease diagnoses. The more specific the diagnosis, the more effective a doctor's prescribed treatment can be, he said.

Because this approach would improve diagnosis and treatment, he also believes digitization of health information can eventually decrease health-care costs.

"For example, breast cancer isn't one disease — it's probably four or five different types and without knowing what type a person has, you can't optimize treatment for them," Hood said.

In an interview Friday, Hood said he'd known he would receive the medal for about three weeks, but had to keep it to himself. He planned to take a break Friday from writing a book on systems biology to finally celebrate the honor with family and friends in Friday Harbor.

"It is an award recognizing your lifetime body of work, so I see it as a validation of the fundamental paradigm shift and changes in science my labs have led the way in," Hood said Friday afternoon.

Before starting his nonprofit institute in 2000, Hood founded the University of Washington's Department of Molecular Biotechnology with a $12 million donation from Bill Gates in 1992.

He's also played a part in founding at least 14 biotechnology companies including: Applied Biosystems, Darwin Molecular Corp., Amgen, Accelerator Corp. and Integrated Diagnostics, according to a release from the Institute for Systems Biology.

Jim Heath, a chemist and cancer researcher at California Institute of Technology, has worked with Hood for 12 years and said he's never known anyone who can see into the future as well as Hood does.

At a recent Christmas party, Heath said it was clear an up-and-coming Seattle biotechnology company they both own, Integrated Diagnostics, was about to reach a major milestone. So he asked Hood if he had ever felt as excited about a company turning the corner.

"He just started listing and he kept on going," Heath said. "It's like not only has he not ever missed, but he's hit long balls everywhere."

The company is focused on finding ways to diagnose diseases such as lung cancer and the severity of such diseases through blood analysis rather than invasive operations, Heath said.

Hood refers to his current medical research as being part of P4 Medicine, which his lab website describes as a way of "integrating biology, technology and computation to create a predictive, personalized, preventive and participatory approach to medicine."

He says approaching biology this way could eventually benefit other industries such as agriculture, energy and environmental protection.

Obama will present Hood and 11 other scientists, many of whom Hood knows personally, with the medal at a White House ceremony in early 2013. Recipients of the annual award are selected by a committee of presidential appointees.

"I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators," Obama said in a statement. "They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great — and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment."

Hood said his biology career started at Caltech, where he and other scientists developed a DNA gene sequencer and synthesizer and protein synthesizer and sequencer, which became tools for eventually mapping the human genome.

He's the author of the popular human-genome book "The Code of Codes," winner of several international science awards including the Kyoto Prize in advanced technology, and he holds 36 patents.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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