HSCI Think Tanks: Accelerating the process of discovery

The power of an international colloquium of pre-eminent scientists can be transformative. Nowhere was that more evident than in the three recent HSCI Think Tanks convened by Jeffrey Macklis, MD, DHST, head of HSCI’s Nervous System Diseases Program and Kenneth Chien, MD, PhD, head of HSCI’s Cardiovascular Disease Program.

In June of 2006 and again in June of 2007, a team of experts gathered for the HSCI Parkinson’s Disease (PD) Think Tank, sponsored by the Golub Fund for Parkinson’s Disease Research, to explore the “Molecular Biography of the Dopaminergic Neuron.” Each 2-day program began with a public seminar at the Harvard Medical School followed by intimate and animated small group discussions at the Harvard Humanities Center.

Committed to discarding a ‘business as usual’ approach to disease research, Macklis set a new tone.

“What can Harvard, with its network and resources, bring to the table that will advance knowledge in the field?” Macklis asked. “We want to think in a global fashion: to identify the knowledge gaps and to ask how Harvard can make a significant contribution to PD research. If we were to dream, what would those dreams be?”

“These individuals distilled the state of the art knowledge in Parkinson’s disease and dopaminergic neuron development and freely provided the most exciting areas of investigation for Harvard, and indeed, the larger scientific community,” said HSCI Affiliate Faculty U. Shivraj Sohur, MD, PhD, after attending the both the 2006 and 2007 think tanks.

Turning Think Tank thoughts and ideas into action and coming away with a renewed enthusiasm and validation of preliminary experiments being done in the lab, Sohur proposed and was awarded an HSCI grant to study how the Parkinson’s disease dopaminergic neurons (SNc) develop after they are born in the midbrain.

Sohur’s goal is to isolate purified populations of SNc neurons at important stages in their maturation, allowing study of their genetic expression profile and determine the mechanisms of their maturation. This knowledge could eventually enable therapeutic strategies in Parkinson’s disease and other related degenerative movement disorders. The project includes collaboration with Dr. Anders Björklund, MD, PhD, of the University of Lund in Sweden, a pioneer in dopamine neuron biology and attendee of the 2006 PD Think Tank.

In April 2007, HSCI hosted its first Cardiovascular Think Tank, “Re-engineering of the Cardiovascular Stem Cell Biology at Harvard.” Renowned cardiovascular and bio-engineering experts from across the globe gathered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study for an intensive, day-long exercise. The program, chaired by Chien, focused on the identification of key cardiovascular stem cell topic areas that would most benefit from HSCI collaborative initiatives. Plans are being developed to re-convene the group and identify specific projects that will keep HSCI at the vanguard of cardiovascular stem cell research in collaboration with other global leaders.

Based on the success of these programs, HSCI is planning on expanding its Think Tank sessions to include programs on ALS, Diabetes, and other disease areas. The next Think Tank will be on Motor Neuron Disorders on June 9 and 10 and will be chaired by Macklis.