Edward Benz, Jr., was named president of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the summer of 2000, and one of the things he’s had to think about since then has been maintaining the center’s edge in genomics. Formerly a department chair at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Benz took some time to talk with GT’s Meredith Salisbury about why it’s important for Dana-Farber to be in the field — and its plan for a new center for genomics research.
What kinds of genomics facilities does Dana-Farber have?
BENZ: If you talk about genomic facilities as a set of resources for high-throughput sequencing, for chip arrays, for making genetically engineered mice — we’ve had those facilities in place as cores that everyone can use.
We also have a very active collaboration with the genome center at the Whitehead Institute, where we have a couple of investigators who actually split their time. They serve as a point of entry for us into the Whitehead facilities.
You’ve said in the past that recruiting genomics talent is based heavily on having a state-of-the-art technology and research platform. What do you mean by that?
BENZ: Chip readers, proteomics, mass specs, and so forth are becoming, for many researchers, indispensable tools. Scientists are going to go where they can access the tools they need to do their work. You have to have a place that either provides that or has user-friendly access. But it’s more than just the equipment and it’s more than just the technical support — it’s also faculty who are experts in genome sciences who can interact with them scientifically and intellectually to extract exciting results.
We’re relying a lot on our interactions both with places like the Whitehead and with partners that we have in the pharmaceutical industry. We have recruited some people who have expertise in that area, and we’ve raised funds for the hardware and software.
We have a five-year plan to create a center for genome sciences that, through a mix of recruitment and the development of core technical facilities, will include high-throughput sequencing, analysis, gene arrays, a proteomics component, a structural biology component, and a chemical biology component.
Where does the talent come from?
BENZ: You have to look several places. There are only a few programs now turning out people trained in both biology and mathematics or biology and engineering. We need to develop another group of people who are physician-scientists, who utilize genomic approaches to individual studies of disease. There aren’t systematic programs for that, or at least none that are advanced enough so that you can actually use them. I think we’re going to have to grow our own.
If the ramp-up for genomics has such high costs, is it worth getting involved? Why not wait till after the initial bubble passes and get in when it’s cheaper?
BENZ: It’s very much worth getting involved. If you just wait until you’re dealing with established technology, then you’re not going to be at the cutting edge of discovery. We want to have the first insights into studying cancer. This isn’t like waiting to buy a PC because a faster one will come along next week. It’s being intellectually and academically at the table as these new approaches are developed.
I don’t think any one organization or institution can do this alone. We have the perspective of disease biology and pathophysiology, and programs where these ideas can be examined. The pharmaceutical industry has the ability to build state-of-the-art infrastructure and tremendous expertise in medicinal chemistry. There are going to have to be some academic institutions that are going to take some of the risks in doing unfettered, cutting-edge research.