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Welcome to Season 2!

Dr. John Quackenbush on Embracing Biological Complexity to Realize the Potential of Precision Medicine


In our second podcast with Dr. John Quackenbush, Chair of the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, we delved deeper into his approach to understanding cancer by studying entire gene networks rather than simple mutations.


In episode one, Using Massive Data to Approach Precision Medicine Beyond Simple Mutations, Dr. Quackenbush discussed how a “network” approach to biological systems can give scientists and doctors more insight into what makes cancer cancer so they can more successfully treat it in the future. In this episode, the doctor explores the potential of using RNA-DNA-proteins to get a complete picture of biological processes, as well as the multiple processes involved in gene mutations that cause cancer.


As Dr. Quackenbush says, “We've evolved over millions of years to have a biology and processes that are robust and stable and work together. And part of what keeps them stable is this beautiful complexity. And while it's really attractive in a way to try to take everything and boil it down to a gene or boil it down to a protein, if we can embrace this complexity and the beautiful complexity of biological systems, it really gives us interesting opportunities to understand more about what makes us…us. And what goes wrong when our cells develop dysfunction like they do in cancer.”


He goes on to say that, up until now, precision medicine has mainly focused on identifying specific mutations as drivers of cancer, the general idea being that we can find mutations that are unique to cancer and treat those mutations with targeted drugs. Dr. Quackenbush points out that the error in this thinking is that single proteins are not acting by themselves nor are single genes. As with everything in the body, they are part of complex networks, so there are other processes at play in the cell.

Dr. Quackenbush suggests that by approaching precision medicine through the lens of biological complexity, we can build better models to predict who's going to respond and when.

Our guest is a practiced presenter and shares this deeply complex information in a way that is both accessible and memorable. We hope you'll tune in to hear the full episode above.

Download the full transcript of the episode here (pdf).


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About Our Guest

Dr. John Quackenbush is Professor and Chair in the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. John’s PhD was in Theoretical Physics, but in 1992 he received a Human Genome Project fellowship. This led him through the Salk Institute, Stanford University, The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), and then to Harvard in 2005. John uses massive data to probe how many small effects combine to influence health and risk of disease. His work has been cited more than 70,000 times and among his honors is recognition in 2013 as a White House Open Science Champion of Change.


On Twitter at @johnquackenbush

On Linked In:

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