To accelerate the pace of therapeutic discovery and support initiatives aimed at solving some of humanity’s most acute biomedical challenges, Harvard University announced on Nov. 8 that the Blavatnik Family Foundation has committed $200 million to Harvard Medical School.
The gift will help propel the School’s mission of transforming health through curiosity-driven research that stimulates development of new therapies and the creation of new tools to diagnose, prevent and treat disease.
“We are deeply grateful to the Blavatnik Family Foundation—and Len Blavatnik in particular—for the resounding vote of confidence in Harvard Medical School,” said Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow.
“Len is one of this generation’s greatest philanthropists. He understands that great strides in human health comprise many steps taken by many people over long periods of time,” Bacow said.
Members of the Harvard and greater Boston life sciences community learned about the gift at a special symposium held at Harvard Medical School’s Martin Conference Center on the future of Harvard Medical School. The event was hosted by Bacow and George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, with honored guests from the Blavatnik Foundation in attendance. An estimated 800 guests attended, filling the auditorium and watching the live-streamed video in rooms throughout the conference center.
The symposium featured researchers and leaders from Harvard, HMS and other academic institutions, Harvard’s affiliated hospitals and the biotech industry—all highlighting their current research and discussing how the work underway today will lay the foundation for greater health and wellness in the future.
One panel, moderated by Susan Hockfield, president emerita and professor of neuroscience at MIT, featured Laurie Glimcher, president and CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and Vasant Narasimhan, chief executive officer of Novartis.
The panelists discussed how the pursuit of new therapeutic modalities like gene therapy, cell therapy and immunotherapy rely on an increasingly multidisciplinary, collaborative style of working that is only possible in rich life science communities like Boston. Throughout the event, speakers emphasized that the gift will help accelerate the quest for new knowledge and therapies in many ways.
“There's no waiting for the science to get there,” said Steven McCarroll, HMS Dorothy and Milton Flier Professor of Biomedical Science and Genetics and director of genetics at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
McCarroll noted that this was personal for him, in part because his sister had recently benefited from experimental cancer treatment. “We need to drive the science forward and share it exuberantly so that these advances can get to the people who we love.”
Ironically, Len Blavatnik was unable to attend the ceremony due to a medical emergency, but the family foundation was represented by his brother, Alex Blavatnik, who is vice chairman of the foundation.
As a symbol of the family foundation's importance to the Harvard biomedical and life sciences communities, Daley presented the family with a ceremonial white coat of the kind that each Harvard Medical Student receives when they begin their studies.
The commitment—the largest in the School’s 236-year history—supports several key school priorities. These include deepening fundamental discovery; accelerating the development of new treatments; spurring applications of data science toward the comprehension, diagnosis, treatment and cure of disease; recruiting data scientists, computational biologists, bioengineers and other experts; and catalyzing collaborative discovery across the broader Harvard life sciences ecosystem.
This support will enable Harvard Medical School to harness unprecedented opportunities for discovery and remove barriers that historically have stymied efforts to expedite the translation of basic insights into promising treatments.
“It has long been my goal to support innovative, breakthrough scientific research and to expedite the translation of scientific discovery into treatments and cures,” said Blavatnik, a global industrialist and philanthropist who earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1989.
“Harvard Medical School, with its unparalleled history of scientific achievement, creativity and science entrepreneurship, is the ideal partner to further this dream. I am confident that the School will make the most of this gift to build on its tradition of scientific greatness in the years ahead,” Blavatnik said.
The gift was made through the Blavatnik Family Foundation, which is well-known for generous charitable activities that have advanced life-sciences innovation around the world, most notably the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists.
“This transformational gift will bring us closer to solving the most intractable health challenges of our time,” said Daley, who expressed deep gratitude to the Blavatnik Family Foundation for its support.
The Blavatnik Family Foundation’s history of support at Harvard originated a decade ago with a gift that established the Biomedical Accelerator Fund in 2007, followed by a $50 million gift in 2013 that created the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator at Harvard University and the Blavatnik Fellowship in Life Science Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School.
Many Harvard Medical School scientists from a range of disciplines—immunology, genetics, neurobiology and stem cell biology, among others—have received support from the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator to advance translational efforts in areas spanning cancer immunology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience, infectious disease and reproductive medicine.
One of the early recipients of the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists was Rachel Wilson, the Martin Family Professor of Basic Research in the Field of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.
“The work that takes place in the labs and clinics across Harvard Medical School embodies the promise of curiosity-driven fundamental research to solve some of humanity’s most confounding and pressing biomedical challenges,” Daley said. “In that sense, this is a gift to medicine and, indeed, to patients everywhere.”
The overarching purpose of the gift is to accelerate the pace of therapeutic discovery by shortening the trajectory between basic discovery and the transformation of insights into therapies.
“This tremendous act of generosity will speed progress and generate profound and lasting contributions to science and human health,” Bacow said. “In each aspect of the gift, one recognizes not only a deep commitment to supporting outstanding research but also a fundamental understanding of and respect for the nature of the scientific enterprise—and the hope it holds for all of humanity.”
The gift will:
Fund a therapeutics initiative. Harvard Medical School will catalyze the development of new treatments and train scientists to be more effective contributors to therapeutic translation. A central tenet of the initiative is that effective treatments stem from deep insights into the fundamental mechanisms of disease that follow from curiosity-driven research, but the current system for translating discovery into therapies must be optimized. To achieve that, the therapeutics initiative will eliminate barriers to therapeutic optimization—common across academia—such as insufficient funding for therapeutic discovery, inadequate support for enabling technologies and a cultural divide between academic and industry scientists.
Specifically, the gift will allow Harvard Medical School to:
- Boost the imaging and visualization capabilities of the Harvard Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center for Structural Biology. Cryo-EM is a revolutionary technology that has given science a more powerful magnifying glass, enabling an unprecedented level of visualization of life’s exquisitely complex molecular machinery. The ability to see life at the atomic level is already allowing scientists to unravel biomolecular structures and behavior in disease and health. Cryo-EM is yielding new insights into the proteins that render tumors resistant to chemotherapy and make bacteria impervious to drugs, among other findings. Cryo-EM promises to enable the identification of new drug targets and to fuel the design of next-generation precision therapies for a range of diseases that arise from molecular aberrations.
- Enhance single-cell sequencing capabilities, allowing scientists to profile cellular behavior one cell at a time and in the context of its immediate surroundings or microenvironment. Scientists traditionally have studied disease and health by analyzing masses of cells in complex tissues, but the approach obscures subtle yet critical variations within individual cells among a complex population. Single-cell analysis offers far greater precision and informs how the minutest of shifts in cellular behavior can shape biology, disease and health.
- PropelHarvard Medical School’s work in the field of drug discovery by enhancing high-throughput screening capabilities that promise to accelerate precision therapies. High-throughput drug screening can advance the identification of new treatments by enabling scientists to rapidly sift through hundreds of thousands, even millions, of chemical compounds looking for potential hits. One such treatment approach is found in precision-targeted drugs for a particularly recalcitrant form of lung cancer. Emanating from research conducted at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, these small-molecule treatments turn off a tumor growth-fueling gene present in a subset of patients with the disease.
Collectively, these and other new and enhanced technology platforms will spark innovation in both fundamental and translational discovery and bridge bench-to-bedside applications across the Harvard life sciences ecosystem.
Spark fertile intellectual communities. Harvard Medical School will enrich its pool of scientific talent by continuing to recruit the most promising bioengineers, physicists, quantitative analysts and computational biologists with the specialized expertise needed to harness new data-rich technologies, advance biological research, build and manage new core technology facilities, and train fellow scientists. The School will empower its biomedical informatics and data science initiatives to harness advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented reality to help scientists generate richer insights into a range of biological phenomena, ranging from the behavior of rogue cells in cancer development to improving diagnosis for mystifying disorders. To that end, HMS will create a new data science core facility that will enable the conceptualization, design and development of new computational and AI tools and technologies for use by researchers across the Harvard life sciences community.
Build bridges across disciplines and areas of inquiry. Through a robust collaborative-grants program, Harvard Medical School will bring scientists together to solve challenging biomedical problems. The gift will fund promising partnerships among researchers based on the Harvard Medical School campus and at its 15 affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutions. These grants will bring together scientists with a wide range of expertise, skill sets and disciplines who will work to solve the most confounding biomedical challenges, and also accelerate interdepartmental and cross-institutional research partnerships across the broader biomedical ecosystem.
Launch the Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab Longwood. Building on the success of the pioneering Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab in Allston, the Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab Longwood will provide collaborative workspaces for early-stage, high-potential biotech and life sciences start-ups founded by Harvard students, alumni, postdoctoral scholars and faculty. Situated on the Harvard Medical School campus, in the heart of the Longwood Medical Area, the planned Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab Longwood will foster collaborations with biotech industry experts, academics and investors. As part of the Harvard Innovation Labs, the new life lab will offer diverse resources, including business building, industry-specific programming and expert advisors and mentors.
In recognition of this gift, HMS is naming the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. This umbrella research organization will encompass and give unique identity to the pioneering work of our 10 basic science and social science departments. The institute will recognize the unique identity of the scientific enterprise housed on the HMS Quadrangle, while supporting a research infrastructure that will be a magnet for the broader life sciences community, including the 15 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutions, as well as other Harvard schools and peer institutions.