Sunday, November 18News That Matters

Harvard University receives transformational gift for Harvard Medical School


At a glance:

  • The $200-million commitment will fund:
    • Fundamental curiosity-driven research and a therapeutics initiative to catalyze the development of new treatments
    • Integrated data science and artificial intelligence capabilities and applications
    • Cross-disciplinary research across the Harvard life sciences ecosystem
    • LifeLab Longwood, an incubator for early-stage, high-potential biotech start-ups
  • In honor of the gift–the largest in Harvard Medical School history–the School will name a research institute for the donor to recognize the pioneering work of its basic science and social science departments.

BOSTON [Nov. 8, 2018]–Harvard University announced today that the Blavatnik Family Foundation has pledged $200 million to Harvard Medical School to accelerate the pace of therapeutic discovery and support initiatives aimed at solving some of humanity’s most acute biomedical challenges.

The gift, the largest in the School’s 236-year history, will help propel Harvard’s mission in transforming health through curiosity-driven research that stimulates the development of new therapies and tools to diagnose and prevent disease.

School priorities supported by the gift 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.

Biomedicine is at a unique inflection point, marked by a dizzying pace of discovery and rapid proliferation of new technologies. The gift 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.

“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.”

“This tremendous act of generosity will speed progress and generate profound and lasting contributions to science and human health,” Bacow added. “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.”

Led by business leader and philanthropist Len Blavatnik, who received his MBA in 1989 from Harvard Business School, the Blavatnik Family Foundation is well-known for its generous charitable activities that have advanced life-sciences innovation around the world, most notably the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists.

“It has long been my goal to support innovative, breakthrough scientific research and to expedite the translation of scientific discovery into treatments and cures,” Blavatnik said. “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.”

The overarching goal of the gift is to accelerate the pace of therapeutic discovery by shortening the trajectory between basic discovery and transformation of insights into therapies.

“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. In that sense, this is a gift to medicine and, indeed, to patients everwhere,” said George Q. Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School.

“This transformational gift will bring us closer to solving the most intractable health challenges of our time,” Daley added. “We are deeply grateful to the Blavatnik Family Foundation for its support.”

The gift will fund:

  • A therapeutics initiative that catalyzes the development of new treatments as well as trains scientists to be more effective contributors to therapeutic translation. A central tenet of the initiative is that effective treatments emanate 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.
  • Propel Harvard 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 recruiting the most promising bioengineers, physicists, quantitative analysts and computational biologists who have the specialized expertise needed to harness new data-rich technologies to 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 will name the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School–an umbrella research institute to encompass the School’s 10 academic departments. The institute will recognize the unique identity of the scientific enterprise housed on the HMS Quadrangle, while supporting 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.

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.

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