A new Harvard center is taking aim at neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease, using a collaborative approach and a combination of weapons to foster research aimed at advancing knowledge about the diseases and quickly applying that knowledge to the needs of patients.
The Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair (HCNR), which got up and running last year, is starting to hit its stride. It is taking a broad approach to foster research and will award grants to independent researchers, provide use of sophisticated equipment for those with more limited facilities, and offer paid sabbaticals so promising researchers can come and work at the center’s own labs at Harvard-affiliated medical institutions.
The efforts are aimed squarely at neurodegenerative diseases, those diseases affecting memory and motor control that can strike anyone, but which largely afflict the elderly. According to federal estimates cited by the Center, Alzheimer’s disease alone affects about 6 percent of those 65 and older, a segment of the population that is set to double by 2050.
Dennis Selkoe, the Vincent and Stella Coates Professor of Neurologic Diseases at Harvard Medical School (HMS), co-chairs the center’s governance committee. Selkoe said the combination of recent advances in neuroscience and a significant donor’s longstanding interest in the field worked to create the center at an opportune time.
The center’s thrust is to create a collaborative structure that will encourage and coordinate the efforts of as many as 500 faculty and postdoctoral researchers doing neurologic research at the Medical School and at six affiliated teaching hospitals: Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and McLean Hospital.
“I’ve been on the Harvard Medical School faculty for 20 years and there’s always been a remarkable richness of talent, but basic scientists tend to work in their area and clinical scientists work in theirs. The whole purpose of the gift is to bring the bench to the bedside,” Selkoe said.
The center’s organizers intentionally created a decentralized structure that will facilitate, rather than direct, research, by figuring out what researchers need – money, facilities, expertise – and providing it.
“We’re not trying to steer this very tightly from the central office at all,” said center Director Adrian Ivinson, one of only two central staff members. “We want [researchers] to know the breadth and depth of our facility and let them come in and do their research and, hopefully, have an impact on these diseases.”
Since the center got its official start on Dec. 31, 2000, it has been organizing, renovating lab space, and buying equipment. Ivinson himself was brought on board in July, with the first grants going out to researchers at the end of 2001.
Structurally, the center is a cross between a so-called “virtual” center that coordinates research and provides grant money but doesn’t have its own facilities, and a more traditional center with discrete facilities, centralized staff, and administrative structures.
The HCNR is striving to create a decentralized organization that takes advantage of the strengths of the seven participating institutions. It offers grants for work at other labs, but also has created an imaging lab next door to its fifth-floor administrative office in HMS’s Goldenson Building, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) lab that will be one of the few open to animal research, and a drug discovery lab at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s new Cambridge research building.
The center is divided into five core areas, each with its own strategy of attack. Core A, the Center for Translational Neurology Research, is dedicated to identifying and supporting both junior and more established researchers with great promise of making an impact on neurodegenerative diseases and on bringing their research into a clinical setting. Much of this is done through financial support, through grants that support the researchers’ work.
Core B is the Center for Brain Imaging, which has both optical and MRI equipment for use by researchers. The thrust for the Center for Brain Imaging is to make the equipment available for researchers who may not otherwise have access to such equipment and to dedicate machines for certain functions, such as MRI machines for animal subjects.
“A machine dedicated to animal research is almost unheard of,” Ivinson said, adding that an MRI machine rated at 4.7 Tesla – a measure of magnetic strength – is ready to be installed and will be joined by a new 7-Tesla instrument to be installed by late 2003. “At about $1 million per Tesla, these are things the individual researcher doesn’t even dream of.”
Core C is the Center for Molecular Pathology, which aims to foster molecular pathology research through logistical aid, such as a virtual network that can help researchers locate particular types of tissues in diverse tissue banks that they need to work on, through grants, and through access to core equipment.
Core D is the Laboratory for Drug Discovery in Neurodegeneration, which entails the largest in-house laboratory facility at the HCNR. The laboratory has scientists and technicians adept at assay development and medicinal chemistry. The lab brings in promising researchers to work at its facility by offering “sabbaticals” during which the HCNR will pay the researcher’s salary for between six and 18 months.
Core E, the Center for Bioinformatics, is the least-formed of the five areas, according to Ivinson. As several of the other cores have considerable need for bioinformatics’ statistical analysis and number-crunching abilities, they are developing local expertise in that area. The question still being worked out, Ivinson said, is what the specific thrust of the Center for Bioinformatics should be in light of the existing bioinformatics capacities in the other cores and the broader HMS community.
Both Ivinson and Selkoe said they expect the HCNR to generate significant discoveries, but they also said that much hard work remains before treatments are available for neurodegenerative diseases. Even if a promising drug is discovered today, safety and effectiveness testing would take years before it could be marketed. But it is that very difficulty and the length of the journey ahead that has sparked the center’s creation, in hopes it can speed the trip down that road.
“Drug discovery takes years,” Ivinson said. “We’re going to go where we have to go to make this happen.”