Like directors of genome sequencing centers everywhere, over the last year or two the leaders of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research have been asking themselves “how best to move beyond looking at the genome to medicine,” recalls David Altshuler.
For Whitehead, the answer has turned out to be: by relying on some well-connected scientists, snaring a windfall of money, and coordinating a record-making institutional partnership.
Eric Lander, who had been introduced once to a pair of the most generous philanthropists in the country, SunAmerica founder Eli Broad and his wife Edythe, hosted the couple when they visited Boston, showing them around the genome center on a Saturday.
“They were gracious and … genuinely interested,” recalls Altshuler, who was one of the many people working there that weekend. After the day spent asking “sophisticated questions” followed by plenty of give and take later on, the Broads (rhymes with “nodes”) agreed to donate $100 million over 10 years to form the Broad Institute, a biomedical research partnership among MIT, Harvard, and the Whitehead Institute. Eric Lander will serve as its director, and the other founding faculty are Altshuler, Stuart Schreiber, and Todd Golub.
The institute, which will launch later this year and eventually have its own new facility in Cambridge near the existing Kendall Square headquarters of Whitehead’s genome center, will be committed to developing new tools for genomic medicine as well as applications for these tools in diseases such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and inflammatory and infectious diseases. Any research focus — from basic biology to more clinical work — will depend on whom the institute attracts, says Altshuler, adding that the goal is to add 30 to 40 faculty members in both individual labs and larger, team-oriented programs.
The center will certainly not be starting from scratch. It will incorporate both Lander’s genome center and Schreiber’s Harvard chemical genomics initiative, and the partner institutions hope to raise up to $200 million in private funding to start even more programs, supplemented with traditional federal grant money for research.
“The big goal is breaking down disciplinary boundaries and allowing people to work across that,” Altshuler says. “We’re all very committed to making this as successful as it can be.”
— Meredith Salisbury