In an interview, Mass General's director of translational research says MGH has the knowledge of human biology to help industry develop new medicines and treatments and get them to patients faster.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, Mason Freeman, MD, is chief of the Lipid Metabolism Unit and director of the Research Institute’s Translational Research Center. A professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Freeman also has extensive experience in the development of therapeutics and has served as a founder of and consultant to numerous life science companies.

What is translational research?
It involves taking a basic science discovery and turning it into a practical product or treatment.

MasonFreeman1Why is this sort of research important now?
The complexity of the conditions we need to understand to make a better treatment has increased enormously, and the scientific tools we have to try to address them have also grown dramatically. So there needs to be a greater iterative interplay between industry, which has the resources to make new treatments or drugs, and the academic medical center, which often has the most sophisticated understanding of human biology.

Why does the pharmaceutical industry need Mass General’s involvement?
It costs a company more than $1 billion to develop a successful new drug, sometimes directly, but certainly when you add in all the failed efforts that don’t lead to successful new medicines. It takes a long time and you’re spending a lot of resources on what turn out to be dead ends. Part of the goal here is to accelerate the speed at which drugs are made and to reduce the number of dead ends. You do that by being partnered with the people who most thoroughly understand the human biology of any particular disease: the physician scientists and PhD investigators at an academic medical center.

Why is the time right for Mass General?
We’ve got a generation of physician scientists who are excited about therapeutics in a way that wasn’t as true inside academia 20 years ago. On a practical note, federal funding for academic research has declined in real dollars and could even fall further and so partnerships with industry can help fill the gap in supporting research labs and personnel that NIH formerly did on its own.

MasonFreeman2Academic researchers are thinking more about how their science can help industry make new medicines and perhaps as importantly, how those early, new medicines can be leveraged to understand human biology better. This has the potential to lead to even better therapies by generating an iterative cycling process of ideas between academia and the biopharma community.

What is unique about Mass General in this arena?
There are at least 280 biotechnologies companies focused on making new medicines located within a few miles of us. Our region is the center of the biopharma universe in a way that it wasn’t a decade ago.

Also, our research tradition at MGH has focused on studying small numbers of patients with an illness, or even individual patients, understanding their illness, and then using all of the basic science and high-tech tools at our disposal to generalize the insights learned from a few individuals into a broader understanding of human biology.

That is precisely the process that companies must use in the very earliest trials of a new drug they have made if they are going to get better at predicting what will succeed or fail in the larger and much more expensive trials the FDA will require in order to approve the use of a new medicine.

MasonFreeman3How is translational research connected to Mass General’s new Research Institute?
The Translational Research Center is part of the institute. We’ve grown enormously in the number of people at MGH who are not medical doctors but who are world class investigators and who know a great deal about human biology. So one facet of the Research Institute is to give research and researchers at MGH an identity that’s very complementary to but separate from the identity of the strictly clinical, patient care side of the hospital.

We also need to create a front door where industry, outside investigators and other potential partners can come in to us and say, ‘We are working on this disease. We need help. We need advice. Who in the MGH community are the right people to talk to?’”

How can philanthropy help?
Many young physician scientists and PhD scientists have to spend all of their time focused on generating science that can get them another grant to keep their lab functioning. It would be enormously valuable if they had some support that would allow them to spend some time contributing to the development of therapeutics, for which they’re not likely to get an NIH grant.

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