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John Harvard's Journal

Biomedical Momentum

November-December 2003

The curtain has begun to lift on Harvard's growing commitment to life sciences, particularly those involving biomedical research. Three events early in the academic year highlighted the enormous economic implications of developing biomedical technology; the role of university research in underpinning such advances; and some of the new programs Harvard hopes to launch to advance basic and applied scholarship in these realms.

Michael E. Porter
Justin Ide / Harvard News Office

On September 12, Lawrence University Professor Michael E. Porter, a scholar of corporate strategy and of enterprise "clusters," convened a "Massachusetts Life Sciences Summit" at Harvard Business School. Attendees included education leaders, corporate executives, trade association officers, and elected officials, each with a distinct perspective on what President Lawrence H. Summers called a moment of "unique promise" in life sciences.

Porter detailed what he called the world's preeminent life-sciences center in a single metropolitan area, as measured by research funding, patents, share of local employment, and other indicators. The Greater Boston cluster, he demonstrated, encompasses research universities, academic hospitals, 300 biomedical companies—from start-ups to established manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices—and supporting services such as venture funding and legal counsel. He estimated that the industry could create 100,000 new jobs in Massachusetts, the largest economic opportunity available to the Commonwealth, and declared that "It's ours to lose." Lest Massachusetts reprise the collapse of the minicomputer industry (as electronic technology migrated to semiconductor chips and the personal computer, the engine of growth in Silicon Valley), he urged participants to join forces to address inadequacies in housing, clinical-testing infrastructure, and workforce skills so as to ensure success.

Porter's presentation followed speeches by Summers and by MIT's president, Charles M. Vest, and a whirlwind overview of genomics by Eric S. Lander, who will direct the Broad Institute, a Harvard-MIT-Whitehead Institute collaboration to develop new tools for medicine (see "Genomic Joint Venture," September-October, page 75).

Summers, outlining Harvard's role, propounded three economic principles. First, he said, in knowledge-based industries, returns increase from new investment (as more scientists come into proximity, generating fresh ideas and avenues for investigation). Second, he observed that some division of labor is in order: universities "are uniquely well-suited" to carry out basic research "because of our endowments, because of our ability to attract philanthropic resources, because of synergies with the scientific mis- sion," but "are very poorly situated" to market products. Finally, he urged diversification in research projects.

In programmatic terms, he suggested "greater emphasis on science and technology in everything that we do," from educating undergraduates to equipping scientists with management skills. He also stressed the importance of practice and applied science, underscoring efforts to grow DEAS (the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences), "putting energy behind the two middle initials." He underscored the importance of collaborations, within Harvard, with MIT, and with other institutions. And he encouraged partnerships with business, to which end Provost Steven E. Hyman will review policies on intellectual property, technology licensing, and related issues (all subjects of real passion among academic medical researchers concerned about compromising conflicts of interest).

Vest spoke about the changes in scientific knowledge spawned by genomic tools and the use of high-speed computation and new sampling technologies. He envisioned scientists modeling the dynamics of living cells and teasing out the three-dimensional structure of protein molecules. He insisted, with some concern, that federal support for science must be sustained to maintain the "strongest base of research universities on the planet." And he emphasized the importance of making universities more nimble as research crosses disciplinary lines, so discoveries can progress from bench science to clinical application.

Lander talked about moving medical science from chance observations and clinical trial-and-error testing to a production-line, engineering practice based on automated assays and manipulation of huge data bases—an image he tried to explain by calling "life a library of information" which is only now becoming accessible because the shelving system has been outlined. He projected that scientists could ultimately proceed to tease out variances in individuals' genetic susceptibility to disease, its incidence, and even customized therapies.


Harvard Medical School (HMS) put some flesh on these bones on September 23, announcing the formation of a department of systems biology. The new unit, ultimately planned to support more than 20 new faculty positions, would then rank among the school's largest. Among the disciplines to be represented are mathematics, computer science, physics, and engineering. Collaborations are envisioned with the Bauer Center for Genomics Research (FAS) and with MIT's computational and systems-biology initiative.

The new department's focus on understanding whole cells and then multicellular systems (organs and ultimately organisms) reverses the current reductionist focus on individual genes or molecular interactions. The goal is to gain "a predictive model of physiology," according to Walter professor of cell biology Marc W. Kirschner, the department's founding chair. (For his work on cellular controls and cell morphogenesis, Kirschner has been named the American Society for Cell Biology's Wilson Medalist, its highest scientific honor.)

The next day, Harvard unveiled the medical school's new research building, a huge "scientific instrument" (see "A Scientific Experiment"). Summers hinted at other life- and biomedical-sciences programs in the offing: "expanding very substantially our capacity to address issues in neuroscience" and ramping up the University's commitment to "global health." The former will no doubt build on the Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair, launched in 2001 by medical school dean Joseph B. Martin, who is Walker professor of neurobiology and clinical neuroscience, and on other brain research by HMS professors and their counterparts in the arts and sciences (see "Brainy Women," May-June 2002, page 36). By all indications, the nascent global-health initiative will involve the School of Public Health, social scientists and policy analysts from FAS, and others. Still other initiatives are likely in stem-cell research, in computational research and bioengineering (DEAS), and in other promising fields.

All these initiatives, of course, have implications for undergraduate teaching and laboratory experiences; siting of new FAS science facilities in Cambridge; the financing and housing of additional faculty members and their graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows; and use of the future Allston campus to accommodate still more laboratory space (see "In Allston Planning, the Silly Season"). Big as the new research building is, Harvard's drive into bioscience clearly means there are bigger things to come.