Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier Friday evening issued a call for new approaches to advance the fight against disease, embracing cross-institutional collaborations at Harvard as a way to bring new thinking to old problems.

Flier, the keynote speaker at the Fourth Annual Tony and Shelly Malkin Stem Cell Symposium at the Harvard Club of Boston, said he has spent a lot of time in his first months as Harvard Medical School Dean thinking about how and why the School does business. As he has gone through this process, Flier said, he’s given thought to who people mean when they speak of “we” at the Medical School.

His conclusion, he said, is that “we” means different things to different people, depending on where they work. Faculty based at the School mean a different group of people when they say “we” than those who are based at affiliated hospitals; educators mean it differently depending on whether they’re teaching clinical or preclinical classes; and the rest of the University means it differently depending on where they are based and what they’re doing.

How “we” is viewed across the University, he said, is a product of the barriers that exist in Harvard’s far-flung enterprise. “Why aren’t we working better together? That’s the question I would ask,” Flier said.

Flier said that many kinds of barriers divide people at Harvard.
Organizational barriers exist among Harvard’s different Schools, among
Schools and hospitals, and even among different departments within
Schools, he said. Financial barriers are created by scarce funding, by
restrictions on fund usage, and by how funds flow from one organization
to another. Cultural barriers exist between organizations that are
stable versus those that change rapidly, between researchers working
alone versus those who are in teams, and due to notions of what it
means to conduct basic versus applied research — a distinction that
Flier said causes much confusion.

“We need to think differently about these terms,” Flier said.

Flier pointed out that efforts are already under way to break down
barriers. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is an example of an
interfaculty initiative created as a way to bring faculty from a
variety of institutions to lend their expertise to a particular problem. He also cited the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee (HUSEC),
created to guide science and engineering across the University, as a
new way to foster collaboration. 

Similarly, Flier said, the new Department of Stem Cell and
Regenerative Biology
, a joint department of Harvard Medical School and
the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is an example of new organizational
thinking that is getting experts from varied fields working together.

Harvard’s Allston development provides an enormous opportunity to
foster collaboration, the Medical School Dean noted, and is getting started with a new science complex
that will house the Stem Cell Institute. “People across the University are working together to get therapies,”
Flier said. “The Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Stem
Cells and Regenerative Biology are real living examples of how Harvard
sees the future of science and medicine.”

Flier spoke at the conclusion of an all-day symposium highlighting the work of several researchers focused on stem cells and different types of cancer, including leukemia, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and brain cancer. Among those speaking were John E. Dick and Peter Dirks of the University of Toronto; Scott Armstrong of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and of Children’s Hospital Boston; Owen White of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Institute of Stem Cell Biology; and Kornelia Polyak of Dana-Farber.

The day featured comments by Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) co-directors Douglas Melton and David Scadden, and by HSCI Executive Director Brock Reeve. It also featured poster presentations of other related research. Jerome Ritz of Dana-Farber, a member of HSCI’s Executive Committee, and Gary Gilliland of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the HSCI Cancer Program leader, moderated the event.