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The Power and Promise of HMS

Albright symposium highlights new research, leadership vision

Irene ZhangHarvard Medical School students “are going to be our game-changers, and they are our future in science and medicine.”

So said Tenley Albright, moderator of this year’s Hollis L. Albright, MD ’31 Symposium, as she announced the winner of the 2017 Hollis L. Albright, MD ’31 Scholar Award: fourth-year HMS student Irene Zhang.

“It is a great privilege, I think, to be able to come into patients’ lives at a time when they are most ill and vulnerable, and do something with our hands and minds that allows them to have hope and a chance to change their trajectory for the better,” said Zhang.

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The faculty member who nominated Zhang, Anthony D’Amico, HMS professor of radiation oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and advisory dean of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Society, praised Zhang’s remarkable intellect, selflessness and dedication to molecular oncology.

Tenley Albright, ’61, established the Albright symposium with her brother, Nile Albright, in honor of their father, a surgeon who dedicated his life to patient care and student mentorship.

The 16th annual symposium, held on March 7 and entitled “The Power and Promise of Harvard Medicine,” featured keynote speeches from new HMS Dean George Q. Daley, Dana-Farber Cancer Center President and CEO Laurie Glimcher and Vertex Pharmaceuticals Chief Scientific Officer David Altshuler.

The program focused on a few recent, inspiring developments in the HMS community, including cancer immunotherapy and personalized genomic medicine.

A new dean for new times

Daley, ’91, the Caroline Shields Walker Professor of Medicine at HMS, shared his vision for building on the School’s dedication to excellence in research, education and health care delivery.

Daley highlighted a few forward-looking initiatives at HMS, such as the Pathways curriculum and the establishment of the Harvard Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center for Structural Biology, and he celebrated some of the many faculty members who have received prestigious awards in the past year for their extraordinary research discoveries and outstanding patient care.

“Some revolutionary technologies exist now that, when coupled with the passion and idealism of our students, trainees and faculty, are allowing Harvard Medical School to change the world,” Daley said.

Remarking that HMS is “chock full” of innovators, he pledged to support entrepreneurship and the formation of responsible partnerships with industry.

Other priorities, Daley said, include enhancing connections across the broader HMS “ecosystem,” securing more resources for the community, increasing diversity and revitalizing campus infrastructure.

From genes to treatments

Altshuler, ’90, executive vice president of global research at Vertex Pharmaceuticals and HMS senior lecturer on genetics, part-time, at Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke about how researchers are entering a long-awaited era of developing personalized medicine for genetic diseases.

He outlined strategies for reducing the high percentage of potential drugs that fail in phase II clinical trials and described how Vertex flouted conventional wisdom when the company developed a drug treatment for cystic fibrosis, whose genetic cause had been identified many years earlier.

“No one could imagine a protein that would fix a molecular defect” like the one that causes symptoms in cystic fibrosis patients, Altshuler said, until someone tried it and proved it could work.

Achieving the vision of translating gene discoveries into disease treatments will continue to require new types of chemistry to target molecules that scientists currently deem “undruggable,” added Altshuler, who said the idea first occurred to him as a student at HMS.

A new era for cancer therapy

“It’s a transformational time for cancer care and treatment,” said Laurie Glimcher, principal investigator and director of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.

Excitement is running high because cancer immunotherapy has finally become a reality a century after it was first conceived, she said. Unlike traditional cancer treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, surgery and targeted drugs, cancer immunotherapy harnesses the immune system to turn against cancer cells.

Glimcher, ’76, described how recent advances have been made possible by the realization that T cells could be recruited into battle not by “stepping on the accelerator” but by “releasing the brakes”—inhibiting an inhibitory receptor that keeps T cells quiet around tumors.

She then gave an overview of other immunotherapy strategies being explored, such as vaccines to prevent cancer, adoptive T-cell therapies to expand and “arm” the immune system in cell cultures outside the body, and a focus on the microenvironments around tumors.

Cancer immunotherapies have been game-changers for several types of cancer so far, and that is “just the beginning,” Glimcher said.