Invention of the microscope centuries ago revolutionized scientific perspective, unlocking a world previously hidden to human eyes and opening doors to improved medical treatments and hygiene.
Today, another innovation promises exponentially greater rewards in understanding the nature of life and improving people’s conditions.
“Genomics is the new microscope — it’s as simple as that,” said Illumina executive Dawn Barry in a recent interview in her hometown of Solana Beach.
“Genomics is like our whole book of life,” Barry elaborated. “Everything has DNA — even nonliving things have DNA on them. It’s a tracking system — the new microscope. We haven’t even imagined all the possibilities yet.”
As the Vice President of Applied Genomics at Illumina — the La Jolla-based life sciences giant — Barry has been instrumental in forging partnerships and projects expanding the application of gene research in the region’s burgeoning biosciences industry.
Her efforts received recognition recently when the San Diego Business Journal chose her as its 2017 Business Woman of the Year from among 100 nominees.
“The award was nice because it wasn’t just about your business successes,” said Barry, alluding to her work with Girl Scouts, middle and high school students, and other community involvements.
“I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more,” said CEO David Wellis of the San Diego Blood Bank. “She’s an incredible evangelist for the genomics industry, not only on how it’s applied to human health, but all kinds of other areas as well, such as agriculture and consumer applications.
“Her perspective is very broad, very global and strategic but what’s behind it is a passion and execution that you don’t always see. It’s actually getting stuff done, road blocks removed and moving things across the line — that’s what she’s really great at.”
As an example, Wellis talked about the partnership that Illumina and the blood bank developed in the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s 2015 launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative, now dubbed the All of Us research project. The mission is to create a nationwide research effort aimed at developing treatments geared to individuals, taking into account their genes, environment and lifestyles.
The blood bank offered to participate, given that is has a large population of donors who are accustomed to providing data as part of their participation.
“The Precision Medicine Initiative had the whole country buzzing,” Wellis said. “While everyone was talking about it, Dawn and I came up with the idea of, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s do a pilot study.’ ... We were able to engage 70 of our donors in a study. ... We learned lots along the way about sequencing in normal healthy blood donors.”
The research is expected to provide a springboard for future inquiries as more possibilities emerge in applying genomics for practical ends.
“We tell our donors, if you donate a pint of blood, you can save three lives; If you donate a tube of blood to research, you could potentially save thousands of lives,” said Wellis, whose organization will be holding its annual holiday blood-collection drive Saturday, Dec. 16, at the Town and Country Convention Center in Mission Valley.
Such collaborative efforts in this region contribute to Barry’s description of it as the Genomics Capital of the World.
“We really have all the players here” she said. ”We have pioneering academic institutions, some of the leading clinical institutions and digital data leaders. ... The beautiful thing is all these parties are willing to collaborate with each other.”
A native of Berlin, Conn., Barry said she had a fascination with nature from an early age, her home being surrounded by gardens and domesticated animals and with encouragement from her parents.
“They helped immerse me in the sciences of life,” she said. “My studies were more focused on genetics and pharmacology. I was anchored more toward human health.”
She obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Vermont and a master’s in business administration from the University of Connecticut.
Barry landed at Illumina 12 years ago, a hiring she described as a dream come true.
“Our mission is to improve human health by unlocking the power of the genome,” she said. “It’s about using genomics for a healthy society. My role is to keep seeking new and emerging opportunities for genomics.”
In that role, she oversees six teams with focuses that include complex disease research, food safety, applied microbiology, health screening and forensics. The revenue generated from these areas exceeds $1 billion per year, according to Illumina.
Though her job was located on the other side of the continent from Connecticut, Barry continued to live there while caring for her parents, both of whom were cancer patients. In 2012-13, she took a year off to attend to them during their hospice until after their deaths.
After wrapping up family matters there, she, her husband, Jason, and two daughters, now 7 and 10, moved to Solana Beach, where the girls attend public schools.
“We love living in Solana Beach because of the authentic people, engaged parents, its beach community, and its proximity to the high tech and biotech business community, “ she said. “The downtown is walkable, the beaches are beautiful and it’s a great place to raise a family.”
An abiding source of motivation remains the pain she experienced in seeing her parents’ suffering and the futility of the methods used to treat them. She feels fortunate that she is in a position where she can be a force in improving health care and making inroads in the fight against cancer.
“I’m high on noble cause,” she said. “I need to work on something that’s going to have a broad, positive impact on humanity. I love science and technology, but what really drives me is the ‘So What.’ What’s going to have an impact and a benefit?”
Barry said she has no qualms about being dubbed by Wellis and others as a “genomics evangelist.”
“I guess if evangelist means being extremely optimistic and having a willingness to talk to anybody who’s interested, then call me an evangelist,” she said. “But I want to drive change. I am committed to working with people who have the willingness and interest in putting this technology to work.”