Anne Young, MD PhD, was instrumental in creating MIND. A world-renowned expert in neurodegenerative disease, her vision to co-localize laboratories at Massachusetts General Hospital studying neurodegenerative disease to create a synergistic, collaborative institute has resulted in a first-class collection of researchers responsible for some of the most fundamental and important breakthroughs in neurodegenerative disease research. The Mass General Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND) is now also actively shepherding these findings into the clinic to treat patients facing these diseases.
Dr. Young received her MD from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and PhD in Pharmacology. She completed her doctoral research in a neuropharmacology laboratory dedicated to psychiatric disorders, understanding how chemical messengers affected those disorders. She had become interested in neurology in medical school, and saw value in taking the same principles that were used for psychiatry to look at questions in neurology.
When she finished her neurology training, she, along with her late husband, Jack B. Penney Jr., MD, started a laboratory at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor focusing on understanding conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, both of which involve the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that was extensively studied in her graduate school lab. With their techniques already developed, they were able to apply them to understanding the pharmacology, as well as the anatomy, of how the brain is put together.
When Dr. Young and Dr. Penney moved to Mass General in 1991, they continued their studies in their laboratory in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, part of Mass General called Mass General East. There were multiple laboratories in Charlestown and elsewhere in the neurology department that were also interested in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s diseases, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), but the labs were spread out. Dr. Young was chair of the neurology department at the time and knew the value of bringing together those working on neurodegenerative disease into one laboratory setting. Her vision was to create open laboratory space with a layout that would foster collaboration and discovery. This was almost 15 years ago, when the notion of open lab space was still very unusual. Dr. Young put in a proposal for space in a Mass General building in Charlestown that was to be renovated and they were given nearly an entire building in which to create MIND.
MIND was then born at Building 114 in the Charlestown Navy Yard campus of Mass General. Its goal was, and remains, to drive bench to bedside research in the area of neurodegenerative disease. Dr. Young had the insight that while everyone was trying to find the ultimate basis for what causes neurodegenerative diseases, researchers willing to take a side road you might be able to find an advance. As she explains, “When you are on your track to understand the ultimate cause of a disease, you can take a little sidetrack and often find therapeutics within that sidetrack. You don’t have to understand everything there is about the disease in order to develop an effective therapy." With this philosophy in mind, she sought to fund people interested in doing that kind of work proactively, instead of just looking at the ultimate goal of understanding the mechanism.
Since its creation, MIND has not only being able to attract top scientists, but the senior researchers have attracted talented young colleagues to work in the laboratories and develop research programs that became funded themselves. Another aspect of MIND that Dr. Young helped to engineer is the close-knit culture its researchers share. MIND’s building was designed with plentiful open common spaces in which to relax, talk, and eat lunch and there is even space for a piano. These interactions and casual bumping into one another not only create community, but also foster advances by facilitating the sharing of ideas and methods. Her vision for MIND has clearly paid off. For each of the four major neurodegenerative diseases, clinical trials have started based on work being done at MIND and there are many more in the development stage. Many of the key findings in neurodegenerative disease are from MIND. SOD1, the most common mutation associated with ALS, was identified at MIND. MIND researchers had a critical role in identifying every one of the Alzheimer’s genes that has been found except for ApoE. Additionally, the gene for Huntington’s disease, which has paved the way for greater understanding of the disease, was discovered at Mass General.
Dr. Young’s expertise and vision has guided and shaped MIND into the center for the study of neurodegenerative disease that it is today. MIND’s bench to bedside mission and strong track record for accomplishments have firmly entrenched it as a nexus for research into the treatment and cures for neurodegenerative diseases.