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Three months after the Broad Institute officially opened in temporary quarters in Kendall Square, it has broken ground at a new, permanent home and undertaken research on a range of influential genomic projects.
The institute was launched last June by Harvard, MIT and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research as a cooperative venture to apply the lessons of the sequenced human genome to clinical therapies. Harvard, MIT and donors Eli and Edythe L. Broad each pledged $100 million toward the venture, which also aims to net millions more in federal research funding.
MIT and Whitehead faculty member Eric S. Lander is the director and driving force behind the center. Lander, who played a key role in the Human Genome Project and was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, was named to the faculty of Harvard Medical School in March.
Lander said the institute has already become involved in a number of major research projects. He has touted the program as a way to bring researchers together and allow them to undertake larger projects together than they could have alone, and he added that so far the center has been very successful in building an “intellectual and practical” community of undergraduates, graduates, postdoctoral students and faculty.
“The key aspect for the past year has been community building, and that has happened,” he said. “So far, I’ve been just delighted to see how excited people are a are about participating in that kind of a community.”
An attention-grabbing April Dana-Farber Cancer Institute study that explained why the lung cancer drug Iressa was so successful relied on Broad’s resources. Lander said it relied on Broad’s facilities to run a large-scale analysis that revealed a mutation in some lung cancer patients that dramatically increases their responsiveness to Iressa.
“More broadly, what it has implications for is that the rest of cancer is going to look like this,” Lander said. “I think cancer is going to be divided up over the next decade or so into a number of subtypes…to be able to identify what are the Achilles heels of various types of cancer.”
He also cited the Haplotype Map Project, which aims to codify variations in the human genome to find the genes that cause various diseases like diabetes, as an example of Broad’s contributions to genomics. He said researchers have already found 8 million of the 12 million human genetics variations, compared with the 1,000 they had found a decade ago.
“This is something I’ve been hoping to see for 18 years, and now it’s finally happening,” he said. “You can’t imagine how exciting it is that within one’s own lifetime, you can see something go from a pie-in-the-sky possibility…to now being able to see such studies happening within the next two years.”
Lander said Broad needs to continue work on cataloging projects like the Human Genome Project, finding cancer mutations and finding human genetic variation.
“They create comprehensive tools that can be used in a thousand different projects,” he said of these projects. “At the Broad, we like to create these tools, and we also like to apply them to projects.”
Researchers at Broad are currently divided into eight programs such as cancer, infectious diseases and chemical biology, each of which has weekly or bi-weekly meetings, according to Lander.
The center currently has four core founding faculty members: Lander, Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Stuart L. Schreiber, and two Harvard Medical School professors—Assistant Professor of Genetics David M. Altshuler, who works at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics Todd R. Golub, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Lander said the center will probably gain one or two core members each year, noting that “there are some discussions under way already.”
“Recruiting spectacular faculty is always a slow process,” he said. “It’s something you want to do carefully and thoughtfully.”
The institute also has about 60 associate members, who don’t base their operations at Broad but can make use of its resources for their research.
Currently, Broad is centered at a 100,000-square-foot facility at 320 Charles St., the former home of the Whitehead Genome Center.
Last month, construction began on a permanent home for the institute at 7 Cambridge Center, a site that abuts the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and is near MIT’s biology department. The site will have 220,000 square feet in a seven-story building that will feature 60 percent lab space. MIT will be its landlord.
Lander said having a permanent facility, with more space for research and a location convenient to the Kendall Square T station, will mark a critical step for Broad. For now, only he is based solely at Broad, he says: Schreiber is still based at Harvard and Golub and Altshuler split time between Broad and their home facilities.
He said only half of the new building will be devoted to traditional lab work. The other half, devoted to larger projects, will include more open labs and more shared space, he said.
“It will be a very different-looking building,” Lander said. “It’s not a question of we’re now going to get a state-of-the-art thing we don’t have. We’re now going to push the state-of-the-art much further.”
For funding, Lander said the center, like many scientific research pursuits, will rely heavily on federal funding, and that researchers have been writing a number of grants. It has already received some major government funding, including an approximately $30 million grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute and a $75 million contract with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
But he added that he will continue to court philanthropic support for Broad, because independent funding will allow Broad researchers to try some of their most cutting-edge ideas.
“If you want to do things that are risky, if you want to do things that are at the edge…philanthropic support is absolutely crucial,” he said. “It’s incredibly valuable money. Even though it isn’t the majority of the budget, it is what makes the place really special.”
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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