Friday, April 22, 2011

SAC meeting

Reviewing past and present scientific milestones, future challenges

Strategizing to meet the challenges: From left, Kingston, Marcus, Ausiello and Hyman

The 64th meeting of the MGH Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) on April 14 celebrated key accomplishments of MGH investigators, past and present, and examined strategies for meeting the challenges currently facing the academic biomedical research community. After the annual Executive Committee on Research (ECOR) update from Daniel Haber, MD, PhD, chair of ECOR and director of the MGH Cancer Center, research leaders presented "Stories of MGH Research Across Time," pairing accounts of historic accomplishments with current cutting-edge investigations.

Jeanine Wiener-Kronish, MD, MGH anesthetist-in-chief, reviewed MGH contributions to the field ranging from the first public demonstration of ether in surgery in 1846, through pioneering efforts in anesthesia patient safety, to recent innovations that support aspects of respiratory function. Emery Brown, MD, PhD, of the Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine, described his efforts to apply modern neuroscience to the understanding of the nature and mechanisms of general anesthesia. Former

Chief of MGH Transplant Surgery Paul S. Russell, MD, outlined the earliest discoveries about the induction of immune tolerance to donor organs - thought at the time to have no clinical application. MGH researchers have now refined those insights into a protocol that has allowed eight transplant recipients to discontinue immunosuppressive drugs. Joseph P. Vacanti, MD, chief of Surgery at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, discussed his team's pursuit of methods to create custom-made organs, including a recent approach in which living cells repopulate the decellularized structure of donor organs.

In a session on the development of new therapeutics, William Crowley, MD, chief of the Reproductive Endocrine Unit and director of the Clinical Research Program, reviewed his team's leadership in the study of gonadotropins - master hormones controlling the release of reproductive hormones - which led to treatments for extremely early puberty, forms of infertility and hormone-dependent tumors. Haber described MGH discoveries of the need to precisely match targeted cancer drugs to  the mutations driving patients' tumors, the value of screening tumors as part of the diagnostic process and the importance of continuing to monitor their genetic status during treatment.

James Gusella, PhD, director of the Center for Human Genetic Research, discussed the techniques he and colleagues used to discover a genetic marker for Huntington's disease in 1983 and to identify the actual genetic mutation involved in 1993. He described their continuing efforts to understand how that mutation leads to the devastating neurodegenerative disorder. Mark Daly, PhD, chief of the Analytic and Translational Genetics Unit in the Department of Medicine, discussed technological advances that are helping surmount the complexity involved in identifying genes that affect the risk for common disorders.

Panelists in the afternoon session, "Adapting to a Changing Funding Environment" - moderated by Robert Kingston, PhD, chief of Molecular Biology - presented several approaches to the expected reduction in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. Businessman Paul Marcus, founder of the Autism Consortium, described the desire of "new philanthropists" to take an active role in helping institutions rethink research models, contribute business skills, and help bridge institutional and disciplinary boundaries. Dennis Ausiello, MD, chief of the Department of Medicine, discussed how partnerships between academic researchers and industry are essential to the discovery and development of new drugs, with each entity bringing unique strengths and expertise. Steven Hyman, MD, Harvard University provost and SAC member, then outlined a new partnership bringing together academic researchers, federal agencies and philanthropic organizations to revitalize research in the neurosciences. Finally, addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the MGH research effort, Samuel Thier, MD, former president of the MGH and of Partners HealthCare, stressed that caring for patients has always been and must remain the anchor of the hospital's research mission.

"The panel discussion with SAC members that ended the day was far-ranging and insightful," Haber says. "We know we are not alone in facing the challenges of reduced NIH funding and are optimistic that the guidance contributed by the committee will help us weather the storm, as it has so many times in the past."

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