Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Eric Schadt on the Systems Biology Revolution

"There are no such things as pathways, there are only networks."
- Eric Schadt

Tuesday morning started out with Eric Schadt, Ph.D., Executive Scientific Director, Genetics, Rosetta Inpharmatics/Merck Research Labs; Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer, Sage, with a talk titled Integrative Genomics.

Schadt founded and lead the genetics department in molecular profiling at Merck's Rosetta subsidiary, and is considered a pioneer in integrative genomics. While still at Merck, he is transitioning to Sage, "an open access, integrative bionetwork evolved by contributor scientists working to eliminate human disease." Sage will take the massive amounts of data Schadt has created at Merck and put it into the public domain. Schadt's vision is for Sage to the be the Google of biology.

Eric provided a brief review of sequencing research, and noted that the avalanche of genetic data doesn't really explain underlying mechanisms - the data alone is not delivering the breakthroughs some thought it would. We can see the patterns, but don't understand what is driving them. As an example of the how knowing the pattern is not enough, he put up a cartoon of a fat guy sitting in a lounger walking his fat dog on a treadmill, because studies show that there is a correlation between the weight of pets and their owners.

He then went through a relatively technical discussion of his research, noting how they discovered there was a huge network of gene interaction not only within a tissue but between tissues, and that these interactions had a demonstrable impact on health.

He had some nice visualizations of this activity, including an interesting diagram with various tissues and their associated genes arranged in a circle, and then lines representing interactions within tissues (on the outside of the circle) and those between tissues (inside the circle). It clearly shows equal if not greater interaction between tissues. These and related visualizations revealed that disease in one tissue may be driven by changes in another tissue. Later, when asked about the possible mechanisms for this communication, he said it's not understood, the endocrine system can't explain it. He has a hypothesis that new signaling mechanism are yet to be discovered, possibly cells that can communicate network state.

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