There's a Whole New Way of Killing Cancer
By Tom Junod and Mark Warren
Though he insists on change, Eric Schadt never changes. No matter the season, he still shows up at both work and most social functions in a uniform of white polo shirt and hiking shorts. He still drives fast enough to terrify his colleagues, though instead of going to work in California on a motorcycle at a hundred miles per hour, he now runs two miles to catch a train to New York City, where he then runs another mile and a half to his office. He is still squat and powerful, his imposingly lumpy brow a phrenologist's dream and his nose the size of a crab apple. He still smiles all the time and sounds like a self-amused surfer. He still writes almost as fast as he breathes and speaks in torrents of scientific jargon that bear only an approximate relation to the English language. He still has a unique capacity for both collaboration and pissing people off. He still gets into public arguments with men of settled eminence—two years ago, he took on James Watson—by telling them they're clinging to failed paradigms that he is trying to displace. When he's asked the difference between what they do and what he does, he still says, "the difference between medieval alchemy and chemistry."
What has changed—what he has changed—is his situation and his surroundings. When he was profiled in Esquire two years ago ("Adventures in Extreme Science," April 2011), he was an outsider enduring a kind of prestigious exile. It suited him. He had grown up in a small town in Michigan. He was the child of Christian fundamentalists and for much of his life a fundamentalist himself who still believes, more or less, in intelligent design. When he graduated high school, he joined the Air Force with the idea of subjecting himself to the rigors of Special Forces training. Instead, he blew out his shoulder on a climb, and the Air Force tried to salvage its investment by putting him through a battery of tests. He took them; when the scores came back, he was asked by stunned superiors if math had always come easily to him. Then he was sent to college and undertook the task of complete intellectual self-transformation. He received an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and computer science at Cal Poly and his master's in pure mathematics at UC Davis. Pure math was, to him, the Special Forces of the mind—he took it because it was so hard, and he wanted to find out just how smart he was. He was pretty smart, as it turned out, but he despaired of working on problems that existed on the level of pure abstraction and had no bearing on the problems of the world. It seemed like, well, a sin. He went to UCLA to get a Ph.D. in the emerging field of biomathematics. The one problem was that the degree required a Ph.D.-level mastery of molecular biology, and the last biology course he'd taken was in high school. So he taught himself by reading textbooks. It wasn't hard. Pure math was hard. Molecular biology, after pure math, struck him as ridiculously easy.
Schadt got a job at the pharmaceutical giant Merck and, availing himself of the Merck supercomputer, became one of the leading exponents of the medical use of what became known as Big Data. He also had amazing success coming up with new drugs for Merck, to the extent that at one point half the drugs in development started in Schadt's lab. Then he told Merck that they wouldn't work. What data had taught him was that the underlying faith of molecular biology—of all biology, since Watson and Crick had elucidated the structure of the DNA molecule—was false. Untold billions had been spent in the hope that we could understand disease one gene at a time, or one genetic pathway at a time; by targeting the gene or the pathway "for" Alzheimer's disease, say, we could target Alzheimer's disease itself. Schadt told Merck that this was a strategy doomed to fail, because disease arose not from single genes or pathways but rather out of vast networks of genes and pathways whose interactions could be understood only by supercomputers guided by abstruse algorithms. Evangelical still, though now evangelical on behalf of irreducible complexity, he asked Merck to remake itself in the image of the network model he was determined to pioneer. Merck declined and Schadt headed to Silicon Valley, to the land of data.
He wound up at a company that made advanced gene sequencers, Pacific Biosciences. There he tested his network model by resolving to become the "hub" of networks of collaborators. He did his supercomputing with Amazon; he put forth an idea of mapping pathogens in public places that attracted the attention of Google; he worked with researchers at Harvard to identify the strain of cholera ravaging Haiti and traced it to South Asian relief workers. But he still wanted what he wanted at Merck: the resources to prove he was either right or wrong. He thought he was going to get enough venture-capital money to start his own lab at UC San Francisco, but the problem with venture capitalists is that they don't want to give money—they want to make it. Schadt didn't want to make that kind of bet. He wanted someone to bet on him.
In the spring of 2011, he finally heard from a gambler. Well, not really—he heard from Mount Sinai, a century-and-a-half-old hospital and medical school on the East Side of Manhattan. He had always thought that he would stay on the West Coast, where, he says, "people are really good at making things." He had always looked askance at New York, where "they're only good at making money." But now, in hearing from Sinai, he was hearing from money itself. He was hearing, in particular, from a man who had done nothing but make money for the better part of his life, Carl Icahn. Sinai was an institution seeking to remake itself; Icahn was a man looking to put his name on a vision of the future. Schadt wound up meeting Icahn and afterward wrote in an e-mail, I think he liked that I had a rougher life growing up, where I guess he did as well. In July 2011, Schadt drove his family from Palo Alto to New York. In September, Mount Sinai announced that he would be head of the newly created Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology. A little more than a year later, Sinai announced that Schadt's operation would be renamed the Icahn Institute, just as the entire medical school would be renamed the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. For the privilege, Carl Icahn had given Eric Schadt $150 million to claim the future of biology.
In some ways, everything had changed, for Schadt now had four hundred people working for him, along with nine gene sequencers at his disposal and a supercomputer named Minerva in the basement. In other ways, however, he remained a guy in shorts, a guy whose face was always agleam in the light of his laptop, a guy whose office walls were decorated with a palimpsest of indecipherable equations. Most important, he remained a guy who never said no—who never rejected anything as impossible—and when he learned that a woman from Mississippi whom Esquire had written about eight years earlier had been told she had terminal colon cancer, Schadt looked up and said:
"That's exactly the kind of patient we take."
It was, in the end, the reason he had come to New York. He probably didn't really need nine gene sequencers. He probably didn't even really need Minerva, because he could do supercomputing with Google and Amazon. But as both a lapsed molecular biologist and a lapsed Christian looking to establish a new faith, he needed something he had never had before. He needed patients. He needed someone like Stephanie Lee.