The scientist and serial entrepreneur takes over the reigns of the Human Immunome Project, bringing decades of leadership and fundraising experience.
Interview by Kristen Jill Abboud
Hans Keirstead is a neuroscientist by training, and few things are as notoriously difficult to study as the human brain. “I thought I was studying the world’s most difficult organ,” he says. “And then I started working on the immune system.”
As CEO of the Human Immunome Project, Keirstead, a stem cell expert, entrepreneur, and prolific researcher, will be focusing directly on trying to unravel the complexity of the human immune system. This work begins with collecting and analyzing data from people across the globe using artificial intelligence (AI). The goal is to develop models of the human immune system that can transform the prevention and treatment of disease. A challenge for sure, but one Keirstead relishes.
His previous experience ensures he is well prepared. Keirstead’s work led to the development of a treatment that restored movement and sensation to people with quadriplegic spinal cord injuries, and another in clinical trials that is saving the lives of cancer patients. His work is the basis for other treatments in the fields of immune disorders, as well as retinal and motor neuron diseases.
In addition to his vast research experience, Keirstead brings substantial expertise in building new companies, including most recently the biotech companies AIVITA Biomedical and Immunis, and in fundraising for important scientific initiatives, among them California’s $8.8 billion stem cell agency and a stem cell research center at the University of California, Irvine, where he was a professor of anatomy and neurobiology.
After joining the Human Immunome Project Board last year, Keirstead was an obvious choice to take over the organization as it prepares to launch a new strategic plan and move into a new phase of development. I recently spoke to him about his goals and his vision for the organization.
An edited version of our conversation appears below.
What excites you most about the work of the Human Immunome Project?
What excites me most is the global scientific and medical mission that it represents. As a scientist, I’ve been conducting international endeavors for a long time. I’ve run clinical trials and have interacted with scientific, medical, and government agencies all over the world to bring science to a global landscape. Contributing to a fundamental understanding of what underpins immunity at a global scale is an extremely attractive opportunity. To bring the global reach to this type of science and to contribute on this level is a real honor.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities and challenges given the scope of the Human Immunome Project?
The vision of the Human Immunome Project is not a small one. Certainly, the redundancy and complexity of the immune system is challenging, but I also see that as a tremendous opportunity. It’s something that has never been tackled before at this level. I’ve spent the last month talking with renowned immunologists all over the world asking them about the mission of the Human Immunome Project and I am so thrilled and so motivated by the responses from this august community. It reflects the vast need for a project such as this.
“What excites me most is the global scientific and medical mission that the Human Immunome Project represents.”
What will be the first programs you initiate?
We are articulating our strategic plan and then we will detail the scientific protocols that will allow us to implement that plan in a global manner. To begin with, we are going to be pursuing the generation of immunological baselines based on global data as well as functional data sets resulting from challenges to the immune system—including vaccination, infection, autoimmunity, immune therapy—in all age groups, races, and socioeconomic classes, and for all diseases. That sounds like a heavy lift, and it will be challenging, but we have a tremendous advantage because the tools to do this already exist. And we will be working with the most capable groups to collect this data and run the assays.
The closest parallel to what we are doing is the Human Genome Project. That was, roughly, a 10-year endeavor—it took eight years to build the tools and two years to use and deploy the tools to generate what is irrefutably one of the most valuable data sets in scientific and medical research. What we are doing with the immunome is no less of a task, but we already have the tools and so we can deploy those tools immediately. That means we can already pull together very meaningful data from multiple groups around the world.
How do you foresee this information benefiting human health?
The Human Immunome Project has a vision that encompasses and benefits all levels of society and all stakeholders. The first is clearly the patient who needs more direct, personalized medicines. Then there are benefits to health care providers and researchers who are applying drugs and developing new drugs. The information from functional data sets that are collected from various challenges to the immune system will enable and improve their work. There are also benefits to the professional drug developers in the pharmaceutical industry who can use this information to develop more tailored drugs with greater efficacy and fewer side effects. Moving up the scale even further, this will be a great benefit to government stakeholders because one of their primary concerns is health care; this work can ensure a healthier population to increase productivity and lower health care costs at a national level.
What we will do as an international organization is something that none of these stakeholders can do alone. Yes, there are many challenges, and, yes, it is a multi-year project, but it is one of the most exciting and de-risked projects that we could embark upon.
When the human genome was decoded, there was the promise of more personalized medicine but that hasn’t really come to fruition. How will the decoding the immunome be different?
The immune system is fundamental to how we respond to every treatment and every disease. You are more removed from drug development when you’re looking just at human genes than when you’re looking at the immune system because the immune system has a direct link to the disease or the manifestation of aging.
“It’s a blast, honestly, to bring together this type of science and AI.”
How do you plan to engage with experts in the AI space to facilitate this work?
This project was birthed at the ideal time given progress in artificial intelligence and machine learning and I am bringing in the world’s largest AI enterprise solutions providers to help us with our mission.
The first step will be generating a prototype, which we are doing by building the AI engines around existing data. Even though current data sets are small and immature, they will allow us to build and refine a prototype. We will start by tagging relevant data to form the centralized core data set that is used to build an AI engine. Then we refine that engine.
The second step is to use this engine to analyze our prospective data. The Human Immunome Project wouldn’t exist if we already had all the data we need. We’re here to collect it and ‘stress test’ it, and that’s going to take some time.
In a few weeks, I will be presenting at the United Nations’ AI Summit with Jane Metcalfe, HIP Board Chair and also the Founder and CEO of proto.life (formerly known as NEO.LIFE) and Wired Magazine before that. We will be showcasing the union of one of the world’s greatest science initiatives, the Human Immunome Project, with a global AI engine build.
What else would you like people to know about you?
I’m not an immunologist. I am a scientist and a builder, and I have all the humility in the world when it comes to talking to people that are better than I am at what they do. Right now, I’m purposely going around talking to all the stakeholders, including expert scientists and country leaders, to listen. My job is to synthesize and present what is irrefutably backed up by the community. It is a blast, honestly, to be able to bring together this type of science and AI.