Mass General's Transformative Scholars Program connects the Department of Medicine's most talented young scientists with committed donors who want to make a difference.

The Transformative Scholars Program at Massachusetts General Hospital was created by Katrina Armstrong, MD, Mass General physician-in-chief, to help bridge the gap between promising ideas and effective therapies by connecting philanthropic individuals to the most talented young faculty within the Department of Medicine.

In addition to caring for patients, a large percentage of physicians in the Department of Medicine are also involved in research. This connection between the needs of patients in the clinic and the work in the department’s laboratories fuels its pioneering role in discovering scientific advancements to improve the quality of life, cure disease and heal patients. Revolutionary advances in technology, particularly genetics, imaging and bioinformatics offer enormous opportunities to solve some of our most challenging diseases. But, seed funding to advance the most innovative ideas in the Department of Medicine is almost impossible to come by because traditional medical research funding strategies are so conservative.

In a recent interview, Dr. Armstrong discussed the goals, successes and funding needs of the Transformative Scholars Program which she established to support early stages of the most promising research ideas in the Department of Medicine.

“The success of our scholars in just the first three years of the program has already been extraordinary.”

What makes the Transformative Scholars program unique?

I don’t know of any other program in the country that connects the most talented, early career scientist-clinicians with friends of the hospital who care deeply and want to make a difference. We are eager to serve as matchmakers, connecting friends of Mass General who want to make a difference, with clinician-scientists who can make it happen.

This is a two-year program for young physician-scientists with ideas about how to solve some of the most pressing problems in medicine today. The goal is to provide a relatively modest early investment for cutting-edge research that can be leveraged for a significant downstream impact. The success of our scholars in just the first three years of the program has already been extraordinary.

What has been the response from the junior faculty?

The program accepts proposals from across the department’s 10 divisions. We receive more than 50 each year, and select the physicians and ideas with the most potential.

To date, 11 Transformative Scholars have benefitted. Their projects range from cardiology and infectious diseases to immunotherapy and osteoporosis. With support for this first step, the scholars’ track record in securing additional funding is extraordinary.

“We help these promising individuals develop a plan to bring their idea to the next phase.”

How many scholars are funded each year?

Since the program is funded entirely by philanthropy, the number of scholars is  dependent on the partnership of our donors. Ideally, we’d like to fund four or five each year. Each scholar is supported for two years at a cost of $75,000 per scholar, per year.

What kinds of research projects have advanced through the  program?

The range of ideas is wide. Dr. Steven Lubitz, for example, arrived at Mass General with an idea about using big data to identify individuals at risk for sudden death from atrial fibrillation (AFib), a condition that increases the risk for stroke and heart failure, especially for individuals over 65. The  Transformative Scholar award allowed Dr. Lubitz to pursue this idea, resulting in the largest screening trial for AFib in the world, with funding support from Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb. The hope is this test will become the new vital sign, and patients over 65 will be tested for AFib along with temperature, respiration, pulse and blood pressure.

Marcela Maus, MD, PhD, has been at the forefront of the immunotherapy research into CAR T cells, which activate a patient’s immune system to attack cancer tumors without damaging other cells. This therapy received FDA approval in July, 2017 for a Novartis product that treats acute pediatric leukemia. The Transformative Scholar award has allowed Dr. Maus to identify suitable targets for CAR T cell therapies to treat myeloma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and develop in-house manufacturing and distribution systems at Mass General.

“Knowing that someone believes in your work can make an extraordinary difference to young scientists on the brink of medical discoveries.”

Marc Wein, MD, PhD, is focused on the genetic foundation of osteoporosis. By developing a better understanding of how bone cells function, he hopes to identify a new drug target for osteoporosis. Improving the care of patients with bone loss can reduce age-related fractures, improve the quality of life for many patients and save billions of dollars in care costs.

How is this different from a traditional grant program?

We help these promising individuals develop a plan to bring their idea to the next phase. It’s not just funding for laboratory time and materials. We provide mentoring support, connections for potential collaboration and opportunities to shape their ideas.

These are young people with the potential to change the world.  But I have also been impressed by the personal relationships that develop between donors and scholars and the impact that has on these junior faculty members. Knowing that someone believes in your work can make an extraordinary difference to young scientists on the brink of medical discoveries.

For more information about how you can support a Transformative Scholar and advance the careers of our most promising young faculty, contact us.