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John Harvard's Journal

Genomic Joint Venture

September-October 2003

Harvard, its hospitals, MIT, and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research announced on June 19 that they will together create a $300-million research institute that aims to develop tools for genomics-based medicine.

Named for Los Angeles philanthropists Eli Broad (pronounced brode), chairman of AIG SunAmerica Inc., and his wife, Edythe Broad, the new institute will take the human-genome sequencing effort to its logical next step by attempting to develop systematic approaches to healthcare through an understanding of the genetic basis of disease. When genomics-based medicine reaches its full potential, the researchers hope, doctors will no longer be treating the symptoms alone, but also the causes of genetically linked disease, taking the concept of preventive medicine to a new level.

Celebrating a groundbreaking collaboration: MIT president Charles Vest, philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, Whitehead Institute director Susan Lindquist, director of the Broad Institute Eric Lander, and Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers.
Photograph by Justin Ide / Harvard News Office

The Broad Institute, which in its research orientation (and its strong academic ties) will be modeled on the Whitehead Institute, will be directed by a leading geneticist, MIT professor of biology Eric Lander, who also becomes a professor at Harvard Medical School this fall. Lander most recently directed the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, which will become part of the Broad Institute now that the Human Genome Project, the effort to sequence the instructions for all basic life processes, is complete. While the Whitehead Institute pursues pure research, however, the Broad Institute will seek clinical applications for its work.

The new institute was launched with a $100-million, 10-year gift from the Broads. Harvard and MIT have agreed to raise another $100 million each to support the institute's work during the next decade, and expect that its goal—to discover and make widely available comprehensive tools that promise to ultimately improve human health—will also merit federal support.

The Broads have no prior connection to Harvard nor to MIT, nor to Cambridge, nor even to the East Coast. "Edy and I," said Broad, "have been asked why, as L.A. residents, we are creating the Broad Institute here in Cambridge and the answer is simple...the science is more important than the geography. There is no place in America, or elsewhere in the world, we believe, that has the combined scientific quality and leadership that's here in Cambridge." MIT president Charles M. Vest said the institute "will build a new kind of collaboration and synergy...[that] will make discoveries while training the next generation...." President Lawrence H. Summers hailed the approach of "a new frontier, [that] Harvard and MIT are joining forces to explore...together....For the first time, it is now within reach to respond to disease not by examining and treating symptoms but by understanding and interfering with disease processes at the molecular level."

The new institute, which aims to be operating in Kendall Square by November, will have 12 core faculty members and as many as 30 associated faculty members from Harvard, MIT, and the Whitehead. Three core faculty members (in addition to Lander) were named at the press conference: David Altshuler, assistant professor of genetics and of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital; Todd Golub, associate professor of pediatrics at the medical school and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; and Loeb professor of chemistry Stuart L. Schreiber, who codirects Harvard's Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology with Timothy J. Mitchison, Sabbagh professor of cell biology at the medical school.

"Harvard is the national leader in small-molecule-based studies in biology and medicine," says Schreiber. The completion of the Human Genome Project, he says, has allowed researchers to read the text that forms the basis of life's processes. Although genomics has allowed researchers to "observe" the genome, Schreiber explains, chemical genetics allows them to "perturb" it, "tweaking the genome" in laboratory settings—by using compounds called bioprobes—to interfere with basic life processes. He says the goal, which dovetails with the Broad Institute's mission, is to "get the complete set of bioprobes for all proteins." When those are used to interfere with the genome, a tremendous amount of information is generated that must be analyzed with equipment and expertise that no single department could ever bring to bear on such research.

This approach to genomic science is not the only one, nor necessarily the best, say several Harvard faculty members—as the Broad Institute news brought out differences of opinion surrounding the rapidly evolving frontiers of life science. A hotly debated issue revolves around the question of whether the large-scale, data-gathering approach to genomics exemplified by the Broad plan is best, or whether it is more valuable to conduct targeted research that solves a single problem whose solution may lead to general insights into how the genome works. In fact, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is conducting a search for a high-level dean to direct its life-sciences efforts.

Lee professor of molecular and cellular biology Thomas P. Maniatis, an eminent geneticist whose laboratory was the first to clone a human gene, believes both approaches are valid and that a mixture of the two may be optimal, but with regard to the Broad Institute, he says, there was no discussion of this issue. Maniatis believes there is "no question that ultimately the outcome [of the Broad Institute] is going to be positive." But he says that many faculty members in the life sciences are concerned about the "highly secretive" process by which the new institute was approved. Administrators, Maniatis says, informed faculty members of the decision two weeks before the public announcement, at a meeting at which "there was no documentation explaining anything." Professor of physics Daniel S. Fisher, who also teaches in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says the decision to commit resources to the new institute was made "under a pretense of consultation."

Maniatis is concerned that generous funding has been allocated to an undertaking with no clearly articulated plan of research and no details about how the enterprise will "benefit the University as a whole." The new institute, some faculty members worry, will siphon off donations that would otherwise have gone to promising research based in traditional departmental laboratories.

But Schreiber, in an earlier interview, said that the new venture will expand the capabilities of departments with affiliated faculty members, and will benefit both graduate and undergraduate students, who will have an opportunity to work in new laboratories undertaking broad interdisciplinary research projects.