March 1, 2018
By Susan Keown / Fred Hutch News Service
When he started his career as a computer engineer in the 1990s, Dr. Hamid Bolouri didn’t think it would be so hard to design computer processors that mimicked biological systems. After all, he’d earned his Ph.D. designing pretty powerful microchips.
But as he got further into his work, he realized that even though his team had designed a computer chip that processed information as powerfully as a simple organism’s brain, it couldn’t do anything like a real brain. Biology, it turned out, was much more complex than he thought. “So I decided to go away and learn some biology, and do this properly the next time,” he said with a chuckle. “And that turned out to be a much longer sojourn than I had imagined.”
Bolouri's quest to understand where he’d gone wrong set him on a course that eventually landed him someplace he’d never thought he’d be: at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, helping uncover the fundamental secrets of healthy and cancerous cells and laying the groundwork for improved treatments.
“As an engineer, I had this utopian idea that we knew enough that we could mimic biology — and we don’t,” Bolouri said. “I changed my projects from instead of trying to mimic biology to trying to understand biology using engineering methods.”
Now a computational biologist, Bolouri develops new computing methodologies for making sense of the giant data sets that are generated by cutting-edge genomic technologies. He uses these methods to answer important questions — How do blood and immune cells develop? How does cancer form? — by mapping out how different parts of the genome are switching on and off and interacting during biological events.
“It turns out that biological systems are actually organized on engineering principles,” Bolouri said. “And given that such organizational principles exist, we can go looking for them.”
Over the years, as his research has progressed and technology has improved, he’s advanced from analyzing the simple genomes of yeast (widely used in fundamental lab research) to one of the most complex genomes out there: the human genome.
Bolouri’s first research project on the human genome was a yearslong collaboration to understand the biology of a deadly leukemia in young patients. The new methods he and colleagues developed for this study uncovered key biological signatures in patients’ cancer cells — knowledge that already has helped improve care for young people with this cancer and kicked off the development of new targeted treatment approaches.
The research also raised new questions that he’s now delving into, even as he looks for new biological problems to tackle.
“At any one time, we have this tendency to think we’ve now solved the problem … and gradually we learn all the complexities,” he said.