Impossible Medicine

From the Dean

Dean's letter to readers

More than three decades ago, while fresh from my clinical residency, I took a mentor’s advice and joined a laboratory engaged in exciting research in diabetes. Sadly, my ambition outpaced my skills, and after repeated experimental failures, I vowed to abandon bench research. But one night, as I watched data emerging from a gamma counter, I realized that my results looked promising. I still remember that extraordinary feeling: in the hush of the laboratory, I suddenly understood a disease mechanism that no one before me had grasped. The thrill of discovery has since fueled my career—and my passion for leading this School.

The quest for discovery drives much of the work we do at HMS and its affiliated institutions. Yet the odds against laboratory results reaching patients often seem insurmountable. False paths greatly outnumber true ones. Only one drug among more than a hundred promising candidates succeeds. And the constraints on our ability to translate laboratory discoveries into safe, effective, and approved therapeutics are severe, including shrinking resources, limitations in animal models and technologies, and a labyrinth of regulations.

By many measures, medicine shouldbe impossible. Yet, I’m proud to note, this community of faculty—along with the wealth of intellectual capital we find in our trainees, our students, and our alumni, near and far—share a determination to overcome the obstacles to translating discoveries from laboratory bench to bedside.

In fact, the productivity of the HMS community astounds me. Faculty members lead a range of investigations, from the most basic, to the translational and the clinical, to social science, policy, and global health. Research funding at the School and its affiliates exceeds $1.5 billion annually, and each year HMS researchers publish thousands of findings in scientific journals.

These scientists join a centuries-long lineage of HMS investigators who have withstood serial failures, rebuffed conventional wisdom, and infused our collective knowledge with fresh insight. This issue of Harvard Medicinetraces their paths to discovery, marked with serendipity and significance, agility and innovation, singleness of purpose and downright obstinacy.