Think Tanks—focusing on the right questions

HSCI disease programs are working on some of the most difficult problems in modern medicine. Cancer, diabetes, and diseases of the blood, cardiovascular, kidney, and nervous systems continue to debilitate and kill, despite decades of research and billions of dollars. Innumerable research avenues are possible for investigating these complex conditions, and, much like navigating a labyrinth, some paths will lead to answers faster than others. Knowing that not all experiments are created equal, HSCI disease programs aim to chart the most direct route for unlocking the mechanisms of the diseases in order to bring new therapies to patients.

This year, building upon the approach piloted by the Nervous System program, each HSCI disease program organized a think tank session as a vehicle for charting its research strategy. The events, which are organized by HSCI program leaders, provide a forum for the many scientists in that program to share their results, challenge each other's ideas, debate the key questions in the field, and make decisions about the program's focus. It's also important for the disease programs to engage the global scientific community. Leading stem cell scientists from around the world are often invited to these events, allowing members of the program to gain a more complete perspective of the state of the field and foster collaborations across state, national, and international lines that can accelerate the research.

Part of charting the best course for a program is securing the necessary funding for its research projects. For example, at the recent Cancer Program Think Tank, the team discussed an NIH proposal that, among other lines of investigation, will allow further analysis of gene expression data generated by Principal Faculty members, and bring the program one step closer to identifying the unique characteristics of tumor initiating cells.

At a similar event, a group of Harvard junior faculty members working in cardiovascular research held a day-long meeting to share their areas of focus and discuss the challenges they face in their current research efforts. During the meeting, which brought together 13 cardiovascular investigators from five different hospitals and research institutions, the group identified three new prospective collaborative projects and will reconvene to finalize their proposals in the upcoming weeks.

Based on the success of these sessions, HSCI and Harvard's new Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering will co-host a one-day think tank this June to explore the intersection of stem cell biology and bioengineering.

Leading experts from both institutes will gather to learn about each other's work, discuss novel technology platforms, identify resources and research challenges, and formulate potential avenues for collaborative efforts that can bring about transformative solutions to challenging medical problems that can best leverage each group's strengths.

An experiment is only as good as the question it aims to answer, and in a field that can seem to pose infinite research avenues, these structured think tanks help HSCI programs hone in on the critical questions. The ability to leverage the expertise of its faculty to collectively focus on the most important questions enables HSCI to pursue its mission with the direction and velocity needed to produce the therapies of tomorrow.