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$200M Gift Supporting Translational Research, Start-Up Incubator

Harvard Medical School

Harvard Medical School (Tim Sackton, Flickr)

9 Nov. 2018. Harvard Medical School is the recipient of a gift from the Blavatnik Family Foundation to develop innovative treatments, apply advanced digital technologies, and accelerate biotech and life science start-up companies. The $200 million pledged for the program is the largest gift to Harvard Medical School in its 236-year history.

Harvard says the funds are designed to break down barriers to innovations in biomedical science that slow or prevent development of new therapeutics, starting with gaining deeper insights into basic biological mechanisms underpinning human health. Those barriers include inadequate support for advances in enabling technologies that can speed development of new treatments and breaching the cultural divide between academic science and industry, as well as providing adequate funding for innovative research.

A key objective of the gift is to hasten commercialization of promising technologies developed in the school’s labs. The university is establishing the Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab on its campus in Boston’s Longwood section, currently a concentration of medical and academic institutions. The Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab is expected to provide workspaces and mentoring for early-stage biotech and life science enterprises spun-off from medical school labs, founded by students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty.

The incubator will be patterned after Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab, also in Boston, offering biomedical lab and co-working space for life science start-ups at Harvard. The Blavatnik Foundation is already active in supporting biomedical entrepreneurship through its biomedical accelerator that funds early-stage research with commercial potential.

The Blavatnik gift is expected to support advances in imaging and visualization underway at the university’s Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center for Structural Biology, or Cryo-EM. This research center visualizes biomedical processes at the atomic level to reveal complex molecular machinery, such as interactions between proteins and tumors and mechanisms that make possible bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Cryo-EM is a joint program of Harvard Medical School and affiliated hospitals and research centers.

The new funds are also supporting advances in single-cell sequencing and high-throughput drug screening technologies. Single-cell sequencing is expected to provide more precise insights into behavior of cells in tissue, rather than studying masses of cells. And high-throughput screening aims at accelerating drug discovery by testing properties of up to millions of drugs to find promising candidates. Both single-cell sequencing and high-throughput screening are expected to propel development of precision-medicine treatments that address diseases occurring under specific molecular conditions.

In addition, the Blavatnik funds encourage more cross-fertilization with computational and data sciences. The gift supports Harvard Medical School recruiting more bioengineers, physicists, quantitative analysts, and computational biologists to promote advances in biomedical use of artificial intelligence and augmented reality. The goal is to establish a new core faculty in data science to develop these tools for use across the university’s life science researchers.

“It has long been my goal to support innovative, breakthrough scientific research and to expedite the translation of scientific discovery into treatments and cures,” says Leonard Blavatnik in a university statement. “Harvard Medical School, with its unparalleled history of scientific achievement, creativity and science entrepreneurship, is the ideal partner to further this dream.” Blavatnik received his MBA from Harvard University in 1989, and went on to become a global industrialist and philanthropist.

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