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Reporting Continues on Biomedical Research Directions
Rich Barlow
June 6, 2008

A study team within Dean Jeffrey Flier’s Strategic Planning Initiative has suggested that HMS enhance its prowess in neurobiology for a coming Era of the Brain.

Medicine stands at a frontier of discovery that could yield breakthrough treatments for many diseases, said Michael Greenberg, HMS professor of neurology and of neurobiology at Children’s Hospital Boston. The team, led by Greenberg and Gary Yellen, HMS professor of neurobiology, proposes the creation of a neuroscience institute that would recruit more neuroscientists while improving collaboration within the field at HMS and across Harvard.

“We’re at a point where uniting all our efforts in research and education makes sense in a way it hasn’t before,” said Greenberg, whose team is part of the Biomedical Research Advisory Group.

Greenberg and Yellen said their team envisioned a neuroscience institute that includes scientists from HMS and its affiliated hospitals; it would be roughly double the size of the current Department of Neurobiology, which has approximately 20 Quad-based labs and another half dozen scattered at the hospitals. This figure does not include another half dozen at the affiliated hospitals. University-wide, Yellen said, there are more than 150 neuroscience labs.

Research into the brain could yield treatments for a range of disorders—addictions to Alzheimer’s disease, autism to spinal cord injury. Yet “in a way, brain research has lagged behind other fields because the brain is such a complicated organ,” said Yellen. “We’re at a pretty advanced understanding of, say, how the heart or immune system works, because of the research tools of the last 30 or 40 years. Now, we’re close to having the tools for getting a more integrated idea of what’s going on in the brain. A detailed understanding requires not just getting research clues but also running them to ground.”

A critical goal of the institute would be to place a core of the currently far-flung neuro-workforce under one roof. The existing dispersion hinders collaboration, the report says: “A neurologist at the Brigham with a specific clinical interest might never meet a scientist at MGH East who is doing research relevant to that disorder, much less have the opportunity for convenient collaboration.”

Yellen elaborated: “Each of those people has a whole set of activities that keeps them very busy. That clinician is taking care of patients; maybe he or she can do some reading to update their knowledge, but there’s nothing that would tend to bring that person together with the researcher across town, even if they’re working on the same disease.”

Added Greenberg, “People do communicate through e-mail and over the phone, but scientists find informal interactions—for example, in the lunchroom, bumping into someone—can generate science that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. That’s just the way it works.”

It is true that some scientists might prefer to be in a general biology department instead of a neuroscience institute, believing that a diversity of colleagues sparks their own creativity, Greenberg explained. “Both models have been tried at Harvard on the departmental level. Both models can work well. Our team’s thinking is that, moving forward, one viable approach is a neuroscience institute whose members also will be in a wide variety of departments. They’ll participate in their home department and the institute.”

The steering committee overseeing strategic planning also heard in May from other study groups. Among them, Roberto Kolter reported on his team’s recommendation for a consortium linking existing microbiology labs and recruiting new scientists to study microbial chemical ecology—the interaction of microbial organisms. “We’re still using antibiotics to eradicate everything. That’s not a good application of ecology to infectious diseases,” he told the committee. “There are more microbes in an ounce of soil than humans alive today. If there’s a reservoir of natural, therapeutic products, it’s in the microbial world.”

Other early recommendations from the strategic planning advisory groups continue to be completed. Reports and discussion are available on the strategic planning website at http://hms.harvard.edu/public/strategy.