The Bertarelli Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Swiss biotech company Serono—announced at a press conference last Friday its $9 million gift to Harvard Medical School, which will be used to establish a program fostering collaboration in neuroscience between American and Swiss researchers.
The program, dubbed the Bertarelli Program in Translational Neuroscience and Neuroengineering, will offer a grant for students and faculty on the cutting edge of neuroscience at both HMS and its partner school in Switzerland, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
Ernesto Bertarelli, co-president of the Bertarelli Foundation, said he has high hopes for the gift’s use.
“It’s not all about money. This program in particular has the ability to bring people together,” he said. “Although science is competitive, it advances because it is driven by collaboration. There is no lab, university, or country that can make breakthroughs on its own.”
The gift will also fund an endowed professorship at HMS, the Bertarelli Professorship in Translational Medical Science, and finance an annual neuroscience symposium to be held alternatively in Boston and Lausanne.
The press conference last Friday was preceded by a reception for Swiss delegates, Harvard Medical School officials, and the media. Among the Swiss delegates were Didier Burkhalter—head of the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs and Minister of Health, Science, and Culture—and Patrick Aebischer, president of EPFL.
According to Aebischer, the Bertarelli gift will support research on neuromotor treatments. Existing treatments are less than ideal, he said, adding that, although treating neuromotor deficiencies by implanting electrodes in the brain has improved the lives of people with the condition, such treatment “is invasive—and when the battery dies, the patient can’t move anymore.”
HMS and EPFL already have collaborated on brain research. Aebischer discussed one initiative of the universities’ partnership—a program code-named “the Blue Brain Project” that uses supercomputers to model the inner workings of the brain.
Working with Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard and EPFL also recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) about the structure of the brain in children 2 to 18 years of age.
This latest collaboration between HMS and EPFL will include research aiming to create next-generation hearing aids, according to HMS Executive Dean of Research William W. Chin.
The incumbent of the chair endowed by the Bertarelli gift, Chin will also oversee the implementation of a pipeline from device development at EPFL to clinical testing at HMS, and will coordinate academic exchange between the two schools.
“The challenges of neuroscience and sensory loss will not be solved overnight, but we need to get started,” Chin said. “And we need to have hope—hope will be the thing that allows us to envision future opportunities.”