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Giving Medical Researchers Unprecedented Freedom Yields Groundbreaking Results


Bradd HeadshotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Bradd Pavur

Sometimes the greatest scientific innovations aren’t the result of a new finding in a lab, but rather, the very way the research itself is directed – or not directed. That’s the radical philosophy embraced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), whose goal is to support “people, not projects,” and it has yielded some dramatic results. Headquartered in Chevy Chase, MD, HMMI has more than 3,000 employees across the US – most of whom are scientists – and in fiscal year 2013 invested $727 million in US research. HHMI Logo Original

“Unlike many organizations we don’t make funding decisions based on research project descriptions,” says Bodo Stern, PhD, Senior Scientific Officer at HHMI. “We choose the scientists we want to support and they can use their intuition to focus on what they think is most important. They may start in one direction but have a new finding that takes them in a completely different direction. We let them do just that and it works well. We give unprecedented freedom but in return they must demonstrate that they have the scientific intuition to solve really big problems, and we want them to be bold.” He adds that while HHMI has a clear understanding of what the scientists are working on, the freedom it provides allows them to not only alter their plans, but branch out into entirely different areas of focus that may be new to the scientists themselves.

Nobel Prize Winning Research

For example, last year HHMI-funded researcher Eric Betzig received a Nobel Prize in chemistry by developing super-high resolution microscopy techniques that allow scientists to see biological structures in greater detail than before, enabling them to better understand how cells function. Ironically, Betzig wasn’t a biologist, and historically hadn’t been working with biologists. He was a physicist formerly with Bell Labs who had an innovative idea, and HHMI funding allowed him and leading biologists to collaborate in a uniquely innovative way. “A biologist couldn’t have developed this type of technology, and a physicist working alone couldn’t have developed it in this manner,” says Stern. “But enabling a physicist to work alongside biologists at HHMI created a unique opportunity and now this radical technology is becoming adopted on widespread basis.”  HHMI, it turns out, took a gamble on Betzig because they believed in his passion and innovative thinking, and it paid off.

As recently as October of 2015, HHMI -funded researcher Paul Modrich, from Duke University, became one of three recipients for the Nobel Prize in chemistry for groundbreaking work that revealed how DNA cellular repair processes work, which play a critical role in cancer progression. “He took a really deep dive into understanding the specific mechanisms of DNA repair,” says Stern. “It was his true passion, and HHMI funding allowed him to pursue what he felt was most compelling.” UNC-Chapel Hill professor Aziz Sancar and Swedish scientist Tomas Lindahl share the prize with Modrich. Their findings have implications for developing new treatments for cancer and other diseases.

The Unique Advantages of Being a Nonprofit 

According to Stern, the fact that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a nonprofit provides an increasingly unique opportunity for the science community. This is because many pharmaceutical companies and government institutions must increasingly adhere to specific research milestones that must be met within specified timelines.

“Being a nonprofit gives us the freedom to fund true ‘discovery science’ without strings attached. We don’t have to demand there is a drug developed at the end. There’s a risk because you don’t know where the next great breakthrough will come from. We need to fund science very broadly, and partly through serendipity and luck, some of the scientists will find breakthroughs. That’s how basic science has historically benefitted society.”

Dr. Bodo Stern

Dr. Bodo Stern

Stern emphasizes that the HHMI is not a typical foundation. Its tax status as a medical research organization means that instead of giving grants, it must actually directly employ the scientists who receive research money. And instead of working at HHMI facilities, the great majority of these scientists are fully embedded at host institutions. “We could build a very large institute of our own if we chose to and do most of our work in one location,” says Stern. “But in general we prefer to have our scientists integrated into other organizations because this gives them the benefit of shared thinking generated from more than one location. While they meet regularly with other HHMI scientists, they’re also collaborating with experts at their host institutions. It’s the best of both worlds.”

True to its philanthropic roots, the HHMI has a special program to award funding to researchers who are not necessarily new to academia, but who may be early in the process of obtaining financial support for specific projects. For example, HHMI recently provided 70 awards to independent researchers – many of whom were tenured – for projects that were in the early stages of obtaining funding.

HHMI also provides stipends to help underrepresented minority students and international students who have been picked to work in a graduate program at a US institution, and who are seeking additional funding opportunities. This is because there are typically fewer stipends available for international students.

For Stern, his role as a scientific officer at the HHMI is almost as exciting as the research being performed. He says what keeps him energized about coming to work each day is being at the nexus of learning about the most exciting new research taking place in the industry and helping play a part in enabling that research to actually take place. It’s certainly not a role he will tire of any time in the foreseeable future. And for the scientific community as well as patients who benefit from new scientific advances, that is good news indeed.

Bodo Stern, PhD, is a senior science officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HMMI), where he develops new science programs. Before joining HHMI, Stern served for eight years as Director of Research Affairs at the Harvard Center for Systems Biology.

Bradd Pavur is a healthcare communications specialist whose background includes a broad base of experience with large pharmaceutical companies such as GSK, as well as a number of biotech and medical device companies. He resides in Raleigh, NC.

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