Shortly after he was appointed dean of Harvard Medical School, George Q. Daley initiated a survey to assess the interests and needs of the HMS research community.
As expected, the majority of survey respondents, which included almost 900 investigators from across the basic and social science departments at HMS, the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and HMS-affiliated hospitals, described their research as “basic science.”
But an astounding 88 percent said their work was identifying targets or pathways that have therapeutic relevance, and 70 percent of those respondents said they had initiated efforts to discover therapeutics.
“The survey uncovered our community’s very deep commitment not just to fundamental research but to driving and propelling that research to have an impact in the form of therapeutics,” said Daley in welcoming remarks at the Celebrating Innovation and Collaboration at HMS Poster Showcase on April 26.
Held in the TMEC Atrium, the event was attended by faculty, students and staff who came to learn about research projects that aim to translate basic science insights into therapeutics that may one day help patients and their families.
In total, 37 project posters were featured, highlighting multidisciplinary, collaborative research on translational topics ranging from “probing bacterial regulation in the mammalian gut using engineered living biosensors” to “viral therapies for intractable chronic pain” to “gene therapy for hereditary deafness.”
The projects were supported by programs developed by HMS leadership to address some of the obstacles for translational work that faculty cited—in particular, a need for more funding specifically targeted to the development of therapeutics, additional research technology infrastructure and new mechanisms to encourage collaboration.
The Dean’s Innovation Grants in the Basic and Social Sciences provided seed funding for many of the projects featured at the event.
The first round of grants awarded some $14 million to promising interdisciplinary research at HMS in fall 2018, supporting 23 collaborative projects. Each project is headed by a Quad-based investigator, in collaboration with other Quad-based investigators or researchers at one or more of HMS’s affiliate hospitals.
Many projects were also funded in part or in full by Q-FASTR, the Quadrangle Fund for Advancing and Seeding Translational Research, which aims to expedite early-stage research with the potential for commercialization.
The poster showcase featured lightning talks by investigators who received funding from these programs:
- Fenna Krienen, research fellow in genetics at HMS, spoke about "Evolutionary novelties in primate brains revealed by single-cell RNA-seq."
- Krishna Padmanabha Das, HMS research fellow in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, spoke about "DNA-corralled nanodiscs for studies of large membrane proteins and their complexes."
- Katherine Redfield, a Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology MD student in the lab of Pamela Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at HMS, spoke about "Engineering A Novel Approach to Pancreatitis.”
- Lauren Orefice, HMS assistant professor of genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke about "Targeting peripheral somatosensory neurons to improve tactile and behavioral phenotypes in autism spectrum disorder."
This year, in collaboration with Q-FASTR, the Dean’s Innovation Grants program is funding 12 additional projects focused on translational research, approximately half of which involve interinstitutional collaborations. Planning for the next round of grants is currently underway.
Several posters at the showcase also featured details on elements of the Harvard Therapeutics Initiative, a cross-HMS endeavor to strengthen therapeutics education and discovery. The initiative aims to establish a comprehensive pipeline for therapeutic development at HMS, from fundamental discovery and translational research to regulatory approval and business incubation.
The components of the initiative include:
- The Ideation Hub, or I-Hub, under the direction of Tim Mitchison, the Hasib Sabbagh Professor of Systems Biology at HMS, which aims to advance creative and innovative approaches to the scientific pursuit of therapeutics.
- The Foundry, under the direction of Caroline Shamu, assistant professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology and scientific director of research cores and technology at HMS, which encompasses an array of core technology platforms that the HMS community can access to enhance their research.
- The planned Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab Longwood, which will feature shared laboratory space to incubate entrepreneurial activities and allow opportunities for faculty and students to consult with business, legal and intellectual property experts.
- The Translator, which will advance early-stage drug discovery at HMS through rigorous project management and expert stewardship of both internal therapeutics development platforms.
- The Laboratory for Systems Pharmacology, led by Peter Sorger, the Otto Krayer Professor of Systems Pharmacology at HMS, which is a multidisciplinary effort to reinvent the science that underlies the development of new medicines.
- The Harvard-MIT Center for Regulatory Science, also under the direction of Sorger, which is focused on innovative approaches to improve the complex process of drug and device development and evaluation.
“Fundamental scientific discovery is the engine that drives therapeutic innovation in academia and industry alike. The most effective and successful therapeutics development efforts must be anchored on mechanistic insights,” Daley said.
“In this regard, I’d like to emphasize that the Therapeutics Initiative will advance all researchers at HMS, from the most fundamental to the translational,” he said.
Next big things
The poster showcase was preceded by a Talks@12, entitled “The Next Big Things: Celebrating Innovation and Collaboration at Harvard Medical School.