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Research at Mass General
A conversation with Brad Bernstein, MD, PhD, the inaugural Bernard and Mildred Kayden Endowed MGH Research Institute Chair.
Brad Bernstein, MD, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Pathology at Mass General and Harvard Medical School, and Broad Institute Member.
His research group uses genomics to study how gene activity is controlled in stem cells and cancers.
We recently sat down with Brad to get his thoughts on being named Chair.
Research Institute: You have been selected as the first Chair established in the Mass General Research Institute. How do you feel?
Brad Bernstein: I am obviously thrilled. I am a little surprised, though, because there are so many great investigators across the hospital that could have been chosen.
Our science does bridge across departments, and so it’s a good fit for the Research Institute. Although much of our work is quite fundamental, it touches on a range of disease areas with potential for clinical translation.
RI: So your research is applicable to a variety of diseases?
BB: Yes, it’s not limited to a certain disease type. We have done a lot of work with cancer where there are good laboratory models and available clinical specimens. Cancer is accessible—a cellular model in the lab replicates quickly and the ‘epigenetic’ changes tend to be profound. Cancers are well known to harbor ‘genetic’ mutations that change gene sequence, but they also depend on epigenetic events that change gene activity.
Epigenetics research is also relevant to autoimmune and neuropsychiatric diseases. These tend to be more difficult to study than cancer, either because the models are more challenging or because the epigenetic alterations are subtle.
RI: What does being named the Bernard and Mildred Kayden Endowed MGH Research Institute Chair mean for your research?
BB: The hospital has so much to offer in terms of great science and clinical access, and my lab has benefited greatly from this environment, and from outside funding attracted to the institution and to our group.
Often funding is directed to a specific disease—which is great. But, at the same time, we also need flexibility to think outside the box and to take our research in new directions. These directions may include high-risk projects or small pilot projects that are difficult to fund, and in any case can’t wait for a grant application to wind its way through.
Unrestricted funding through a Chair will allow for more exploration that may not always pan out, but has the potential to bring unanticipated discoveries and outcomes. Being named the first Research Institute endowed Chair is a great honor and I am excited about the direct impact it will have on my research.
RI: The funds from this Chair are giving you the ability to take chances. Isn’t that what research is all about—taking chances?
BB: Yes, and that's exactly what having unrestricted funding will allow me to do.
RI: What are some of the goals of your research?
BB: We (humans) have this large set of genes and they get switched on and off in really complicated ways across our body and in disease. How does that happen? It’s a pretty interesting question. Understanding this is the big goal of our research.
I am also very enthusiastic about the clinical opportunities. As we decipher and understand epigenetic regulation, we can identify new drug targets or even develop new therapeutics.
RI: Can you tell me about mentors that have helped to shape you as a researcher? How do you translate that as a mentor to the next generation of investigators?
BB: I have benefitted immensely from the mentorship I have received over the years, whether it was in labs I worked at in college, labs I worked at in medical school, or my PhD lab in structural biology. Here in Boston, I trained with Stuart Schreiber, who’s a brilliant chemist, but I also spent a lot of time with Eric Lander, who’s the genome guru. At each step, I have tried to absorb aspects of their thinking, their science and their leadership. I have been able to pull out pieces that work for me, and that has been invaluable.
Now, I’m fortunate to have a spectacular group of trainees—graduate students, postdocs, and fabulous technicians, several of whom will be heading off to grad school. I try to impart to them how important it is to learn the fundamental things, like how to design and execute experiments, how to give a talk, and how to write a paper. Mass General attracts great talent, and I have a great group here.
RI: Is there anything we did not cover that you would like to add?
BB: I had a great conversation with Mildred Kayden, for whom the chair is named, the other day. She was pretty excited by the science, and that was a lot of fun. She is sharp as a tack, and seemed to relish the opportunity to provide this support for our work.
She told me about herself as well. She has a remarkably interesting background writing music for plays—some of which are still being performed today—and she spent a career on the radio interviewing some pretty notable folks. I enjoyed the conversation. She struck me as a woman well ahead of her time.
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