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Archives - Thinking big, breaking barriers

Fall 2011

Thinking big, breaking barriers

Date: October 3, 2011

Illustration of the historic Hopkins domed roof

Last summer, Hopkins Medicine created a patient safety institute that will draw on the best university minds to devise new, scientifically validated procedures that enhance quality care throughout our clinical departments. Thanks to the generosity of Board Chair C. Michael Armstrong, we are taking the next big step in amplifying Peter Pronovost’s impressive safety work. We’ll do this through interdisciplinary research that leads to rigorously tested patient safety tools.

Some people have asked: Why form another institute? We already have a patient safety center and a quality and safety research group. Are we simply putting a new name on what we’re doing? It’s a valid question.

Here’s my answer: In the past decade, we have learned that society’s big health problems transcend traditional divisions of medicine. What’s needed is a broader range of medical science experts, working together, to unlock the mysteries of diseases. That’s why we have formed a number of institutes that unite investigators from a variety of fields. They bring to the table quite different perspectives on medical illnesses and how to pursue solutions.

Faculty working on basic science and clinical research in the exploding field of genetics collaborate at the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine (IGM). The School of Medicine’s basic biomedical research operates its own umbrella institute. We have established a groundbreaking Institute for Cell Engineering, set up a cutting-edge Brain Science Institute, and created similar units for nanobiotechnology and computational medicine. Each institute draws strength from its diversity of brainpower and resources. This cross-fertilization attracts brilliant investigators from all over the Hopkins universe. They bring fresh ideas and approaches to tackling daunting medical challenges.

Look at the fast-emerging science of nanobiotechnology. Our institute combines 214 researchers from the schools of Medicine, Public Health, Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and the Applied Physics Laboratory. The goal is to develop novel microscopic materials for drug delivery, diagnostics, and patient therapy. Researchers are manipulating the smallest levels of matter, yet they are thinking big ideas. That’s another characteristic of institutes.

Nanobiotechnology investigators envision micro-devices that detect cancer cells, report diagnostic information, and deliver treatment directly to the malignant cells. They are pursuing gene therapy for cystic fibrosis and examining the impact of tiny nano-materials on health and the environment. This institute combines research in the physical sciences and engineering with the life sciences and medicine. It cuts across departments, sweeping away bureaucratic barriers that can isolate researchers instead of uniting them.

At the Institute for Cell Engineering, a multidisciplinary group of faculty is conducting groundbreaking stem cell research by seeking to mold engineered human cells into therapies for Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, diabetes, and heart failure. No one there is thinking small, either.

Unlike a department, an institute has the capacity to strategically attack major medical puzzles using the full arsenal of Hopkins expertise.

Interdisciplinary work groups at the Brain Science Institute, for instance, engage in outside-the-box thinking on brain-related challenges such as regenerating nerves, ameliorating pain, traumatic brain injury, and learning disorders.

Another cutting-edge initiative, the Institute for Computational Medicine, applies mathematics, engineering, and computer science to biological investigations into human disease. Its faculty is harnessing the immense power of computational modeling in the search for disease treatments.

These institutes accelerate the cross-fertilization and collaboration that already exists at Hopkins.

As Steve Desiderio, director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, puts it, “I can go to any colleague in any department across the institution and talk ideas. There are no boundaries here and for that reason, you never know where the next idea will come from.”

None of this would be possible without the cooperation of Hopkins’ department directors. Early on, they recognized the value of bringing together university experts with a wide range of medical and scientific interests. They have sacrificed resources to make the institutes work and have been willing to let the institutes take credit for many exciting advances.

Yet departments remain the core of Hopkins Medicine. No institute is totally independent. Faculty appointments in the institutes are secondary to an investigator’s primary department appointment. Thus, ultimate responsibility and control remains with each Hopkins department. It’s a system that works well.

There’s another advantage to establishing institutes: donor support. It is difficult to convince donors to contribute to basic research that seems esoteric. It is far easier for them to grasp the broad concepts of an institute and get excited about its far-reaching goals.

From IGM to the Armstrong Institute, these entities bring the university’s most innovative thinkers together to work on vexing medical problems. Collaboration across departmental lines has proved remarkably successful, thanks in large measure to Hopkins’ warm and collegial research environment.