‘Phase two’ ushers in new leadership and direction in disease programs

HSCI’s mission is to find cures or treatments for diseases that cause disability and death for millions—scourges like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. To help achieve this goal, a large body of HSCI research is organized within disease programs, which bring together stem cell scientists from the HSCI-affiliated institutions to focus intensely on a specific disease.

There are now six disease programs—blood diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and nervous system diseases. Each has been ably led since its inception by a senior HSCI principal faculty member, who has laid a solid foundation upon which each program could grow.

Now in its sixth year, or “phase two,” HSCI has welcomed several new disease program leaders, including some outstanding junior faculty members. As with their predecessors, the new leaders were chosen for their scientific excellence, collaborative approach to research, and commitment to and passion for HSCI’s mission.

New leaders

Now co-leading the Cancer Program are Scott Armstrong, MD, PhD, of Children’s Hospital Boston, and Ramesh Shivdasani, MD, PhD, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. They took the helm from Gary Gilliland, MD, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who left Harvard to join Merck.

Richard Lee, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, now leads the Cardiovascular Program, a position formerly held by Kenneth Chien, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital. Chien continues to be very actively involved in HSCI—serving on the Executive Committee, leading the Clinician Scientist Program, and helping to oversee the collaborative alliance between HSCI and GlaxoSmithKline.

The Kidney Program is now co-led by Benjamin Humphreys, MD, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Andrew McMahon, PhD, of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and head of HSCI’s Genome Modification Facility. They succeed Joseph Bonventre, MD, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who now serves on the HSCI Executive Committee.

Rethinking direction

In addition to new leadership for three of the programs, all six disease programs continue to revisit and redefine their scientific priorities and direction during annual think tanks, which bring together leaders in each specific area to pool their knowledge and define objectives going forward.

This process ensures that each program has a broad perspective by drawing on the collective expertise of many HSCI faculty, and is focused on addressing the right scientific questions at the right time so that new opportunities can be capitalized on efficiently. (The next issue of Stem Cell Lines will report on several recent think tanks.)

Last year, for example, following its 2009 think tank, the Cancer Program narrowed its scientific priorities to a few key areas involving cancer stem cells. Under the program’s new leadership, five faculty members applied for and received a federal “Grand Opportunity” grant that will allow them to begin to focus on two of these priorities.

Similarly, junior faculty members within the Cardiovascular Program identified the big questions in their field, and two multi-investigator groups recently received HSCI funding for two of these areas. One project seeks to clarify which factors are involved in cardiogenesis—the process by which heart progenitor cells become the fully differentiated cells that make up the heart—and at which step in this process. The goal of the other is to understand which factors promote the expansion of heart progenitor cells in a laboratory dish so that sufficient cells can be produced for research purposes and eventual regenerative therapies.

Likewise, under its new leadership the Kidney Program has narrowed its focus to research involving a specific area of the kidney’s nephrons—which are the key functional units of the kidney—called proximal tubules, as these are thought to be the most amenable to regenerative therapies.

While the leadership of the other disease programs remains the same, their focus is continually being finetuned. For example, the Diabetes Program, which continues to be led by Gordon Weir, MD, of Joslin Diabetes Center, was recently expanded to encompass research on obesity and autoimmunity.

The direction of the Nervous System Diseases Program and the Blood Program, which are led by Jeffrey Macklis, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Daniel Tenen, MD, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, respectively, will continue to be revisited and refined.