Harvard Medical School celebrated the launch of the Ideation Hub and the Translator — two key components of the school-wide Therapeutics Initiative — in a virtual symposium Oct. 28.
Launched in 2019, the Therapeutics Initiative is an interdisciplinary endeavor to help translate researchers’ scientific discoveries into medicines with direct impacts on human health.
Harvard Medical School Systems Biology professor Timothy J. Mitchison serves as director of the Ideation Hub, which will focus on early-stage aspects of the initiative including team building and educating Medical School researchers on the drug discovery process. Mark N. Namchuk, the executive director of Therapeutics Translation at the Medical School, directs the Translator, the branch of the initiative geared towards helping with execution once teams and ideas are formed.
In his remarks at the symposium, Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 said the initiative aims to foster “rigorous, collaborative science” that will solve major challenges to human health.
“One of my foremost priorities is to cultivate and enhance the impact of our community’s research,” Daley said. “We wanted to remove as many obstacles as possible and provide the resources needed to propel promising ideas into new medicines and therapies.”
The initiative is supported by a $200 million gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation to Harvard Medical School in 2018, which has funded an array of research endeavors at the Medical School including programs in single cell sequencing and structural biology.
In his speech at the symposium, Len Blavatnik, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, said the initiative underscores the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration.
“This type of effort shows how much you can move forward through interdisciplinary collaboration in research, which is the key to modern science,” Blavatnik said. “I think you’re really making great strides in breaking down the silos.”
Blavatnik also said better drugs are needed “sooner and faster,” highlighting the importance of the initiative in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its international impacts.
Namchuk said in an interview that while the pandemic has hampered some aspects of the initiative, it has also led to an unprecedented amount of cross-disciplinary collaboration between institutions and labs.
“One thing I'm really passionate about is making sure that we can support projects that are between disciplines, between institutions so that they can find a home within the therapeutics initiative,” Namchuk said. “It was a phenomenal opportunity to see how those sorts of projects were set up, work with a broader group of people, and show that it can work.”
That type of work will be the main focus of the Translator, including the hiring of industry experts as senior therapeutic scientists who will provide experience in drug development to help researchers at the Medical School in their translational research, according to Namchuk.
He also said these scientists would serve as mentors for graduate students and postdocs who may be interested in careers in drug discovery.
“If you're a grad student or a postdoc and you want to learn from somebody who's been doing it for 20 or 30 years how that process works and how the science works and how your idea can begin to grow towards something like that, these would be super people to connect with,” Namchuk said.
While the Translator will focus on aiding researchers in the execution of their projects, the Ideation Hub focuses on building collaboration between scientists at the Medical School.
Mitchison said the Ideation Hub is forming Disease and Technology Groups, bringing together researchers from a broad range of expertise with a common interest in specific translation research problems.
“To really make an impact in drug discovery even in early stages, we think it’s going to work better if faculty and research groups work in teams rather than just individual research groups working by themselves, which is kind of the norm at Harvard,” Mitchison said.
At the time of the launch, two groups had already been formed to focus on Lyme disease and COVID-19. A partnership with pharmaceutical company AbbVie Inc. supports the latter group.
Namchuk, who worked in drug discovery and served in leadership positions in industry before joining the Medical School in January, said his experience in those roles helped him understand that “science has to breathe,” and ideas need room to grow.
“You need to understand when it's time to color inside the lines and when it's time to let yourself color outside the lines because the idea is just pulling you there and it’s a really good place to go,” Namchuk said.
—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.