By Kevin Davies
July 15, 2003 | Eric Lander, you've just sequenced the human genome. What are you going to do next?
"Empower the next generation of biomedical scientists by providing access to cutting-edge ideas and tools" at the helm of the new $300-million Broad Institute.
In an historic announcement on June 19, traditional rivals Harvard and MIT have agreed to join forces to establish the Broad Institute, dedicated to realizing the promise of genomic medicine. The institute is named after venture philanthropist Eli Broad, founder of AIG SunAmerica, and his wife Edythe.
"It's going to be a fantastic thing for science, a fantastic thing for mankind," said Susan Lindquist, director of the Whitehead Institute, which hosted the press conference announcing the institute. "The agreements have been signed, the first check has been delivered," beamed MIT President Charles Vest.
Broad (rhymes with "road") is putting up $100 million over the next 10 years. Harvard University and MIT have pledged to match the donation as equal partners, a feat that left even Lander shaking his head. "What is extraordinary is that these two great institutions have decided to come together," he said. The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Harvard Hospitals are also founding partners in the new venture.
Although based in Los Angeles, Broad, ranked one of the top 30 wealthiest Americans with a net worth of $4.8 billion, made no apology for investing a slice of what he quaintly termed "our family's resources" on the East Coast. "The science is more important than the geography," Broad said. "There's no place [that] has the combined scientific quality and leadership than here in Cambridge."
The Broad Institute will emerge from what is currently the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, which Lander founded in 1990. The institute will be housed temporarily in the genome center, situated a few blocks north of the gleaming towers of Novartis and Biogen adjacent to a Checker Cab garage. Several nearby sites under development are being considered for the institute's permanent home.
There are two primary goals of the Broad Institute: First, to develop comprehensive new tools to analyze the human genome for the benefit of the international research community. And second, to enhance the understanding, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of disease.
The first of 12 faculty appointments include David Altshuler and Todd Golub, leading figures in the fields of pharmacogenomics and cancer genomics, respectively. In addition, Harvard University chemist Stuart Schreiber is transferring his chemical genomics group to the institute. Lander also hopes to recruit several other star scientists, including one or two medical geneticists.
Lander stressed that "the [Broad] funds are not designated for endowment, or buildings; they are catalytic funds to take risks on new people [and] projects" over the next decade. This is in addition to the ongoing grant support for the Whitehead genome center, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The center currently employs 250 people with an annual operating budget of $80 million.
The vision of the Broad Institute was laid out by Lander during the press conference. "The Human Genome Project was biology's first communal project," he said, but it was only the first step in providing "the foundation for the future of medicine." He added: "True progress comes only from true understanding" of the molecular underpinnings of disease. "Genome medicine allows scientists to look systematically at the cell." A key component of the Broad Institute will be computational biology.
Rumors have been swirling for two years that Lander might head a possible spin-off of the Whitehead Institute. Negotiations intensified following a short-notice visit Broad paid to the genome center one Saturday, during which he was impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of Lander's team.
The sight of the presidents of Harvard and MIT joking and smiling next to each other at the press conference even prompted one Broad Institute scientist to dub the occasion "Larry and Chuck's excellent adventure."