Reed Magazine November 2004
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Imagining a Brave New Medical World

Harnessing approaches to information unavailable until now, systems biology focuses on studying the complex interactions among vast numbers of biological elements working as a whole rather than by examining single genes, proteins, or pathogens. “Since the completion of the human genome sequence,” says Perlmutter, “we now know the 30,000 or so human genes that encode every single one of the proteins that make us up.”

Living on the leading edge of a revolution in biology and medicine is far from a new experience for Perlmutter. As Amgen’s executive vice president for research and development since 2001, he directs a group of scientists who work on the cutting edge of discovery at the world’s largest and most successful biotechnology company.

It took him more than two decades after entering Reed as an English literature major in the late ’60s to work through the fields of chemistry, biology, and finally immunology before coming back to drug development, first at pharmaceutical giant Merck and more recently at Amgen. Perlmutter says it was a restless imagination and something in Reed College’s environment that led him in a series of different directions. “In an interesting sort of way, my thesis work at Reed College was actually related to drug discovery and the adverse effects of drugs, though I didn’t get back to that kind of thing for 20 years,” he says. “I was, at the time, interested in drugs that could be immunosuppressants, and I went on to study immunology and molecular biology and worked in drug discovery.

Perlmutter predicts that doctors in the coming decades will be practicing a far more personalized form of medicine. Using genetic patterns to predict illnesses before they present themselves, future physicians will be tailoring therapies to fit the person
DNA baby

I guess, in some ways, it’s all part of a piece.” While at Reed, Perlmutter met Joan Kreiss ’73, and the two later married. Kreiss is a physician and infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of Washington.

Perlmutter earned his Ph.D. in immunology and M.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. From there he pursued clinical training at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and at the University of California at San Francisco. He went on to do post-doctoral work at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena under Dr. Leroy Hood, one of the first advocates and key players in the Human Genome Project. (Hood received Reed’s Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology in 2003.) While in Pasadena, Perlmutter and Hood forged what has become a lifelong friendship. Last year, in addition to his work at Amgen, Perlmutter joined his former teacher as chairman of Hood’s Seattle nonprofit research center, the Institute for Systems Biology.

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Reed Magazine November