Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
The new wing of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research was formally dedicated this week at a ceremony that featured NIH Director and Nobel laureate Harold E. Varmus and former Senator Paul E. Tsongas, chairman of the board for Whitehead.
"This new facility, located at the heart of the biotechnology enterprise in Massachusetts, will allow Whitehead scientists to accelerate programs in cancer research, human genetics, AIDS and TB research, and basic developmental biology," said Mr. Tsongas. "Whitehead researchers are exploring the origins of disease at the molecular level and creating entirely new strategies for developing drugs and vaccines. They are laying the foundation for medicine in the 21st century."
In his keynote address, Dr. Varmus outlined the reasons behind the Whitehead's success: "the strong linkage to MIT, a place that offers not only prestigious and wonderful students, but access to many disciplines-computer science, mathematics, engineering, chemistry, and physics-that are increasingly important for biomedical research. Second, the Institute's starting lineup of major investigators, people with both enthusiasm and prowess. Third, the inspiration it received at its inception from Jack Whitehead's generosity and from David Baltimore's leadership, and has received thereafter from its many advisors and of course, the current director, Gerry Fink.
"A fourth element of your success is one implied by the title of today's proceedings-Partners in Discovery," Dr. Varmus continued. "The Whitehead Institute has prospered from a healthy mix of sponsors-government, industry, university, and of course, private philanthropy. That mix has been further enriched by interactions with the biotechnology industry. These partnerships are important in today's fiscal environment. But there is a danger here, too. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that the government can be replaced or allowed to retreat from its primary responsibility to support biomedical sciences and a wide variety of other sciences."
Finally, he spoke of a more "subtle" element of the Whitehead's character. "The Whitehead has created and sustained an intellectual environment in which serious work is done in the spirit of play," Dr. Varmus said. He urged the audience to "to preserve the atmosphere of productive and collegial play, and to foster connections with the serious problems that such play must ultimately serve."
Since its founding 14 years ago, Whitehead has become a world leader in the Human Genome Project (the effort to identify all of the 100,000 genes that make up a human being) and gained international recognition for a variety of achievements, including developing new vaccine candidates for AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer; cloning the first human chromosome; and deciphering basic disease mechanisms responsible for diabetes, breast cancer, leukemia and heart disease.
The new wing, which adds approximately 76,000 square feet, has enabled Whitehead to create expanded biologic containment facilities for infectious disease research, to double the size of its state-of-the-art animal facility for studying mouse models of human disease; and to build a new Center for Structural Biology to advance the field of molecular medicine. Overall, the addition increases space for research and training by more than 45 percent.
GROWING FELLOWS PROGRAM
"Another exciting feature of the new wing is that it will provide space for expansion of our Whitehead Fellows Program," Dr. Fink said. "This program allows promising young scientists with exceptional research agendas to pursue independent research programs as an alternative to traditional postdoctoral positions. It has been hailed throughout the country as a model for bringing the very best young scientists to maturity ahead of their time."
At the dedication, Susan Whitehead, vice chairman of the Whitehead Board of Directors, announced successful completion of the Institute's first major fundraising initiative, the Campaign for Discovery, which has raised more than $12.5 million. The Campaign helped offset the cost of constructing the new research wing and also provided new funds for research and fellowship support (see MIT Tech Talk, September 11).
"Like all great changes, the establishment of the Whitehead required both individual and institutional vision and leadership, and it can't be said enough that first and foremost, we really are bearing witness today to Jack Whitehead's dream and creation," Dr. Vest said. "It is a truly wonderful legacy to humanity that he has left us. The Whitehead family, through this creation, continues to remind all of us how philanthropy, implemented through world-class men and women and world-class institutions, can really substantially improve human progress."
Among the major donors are The Ira W. DeCamp Fund, The W.M. Keck Foundation, The Mary Woodard Lasker Charitable Trust, The G. Harold & Leila Y. Mathers Foundation, and the Fannie E. Rippel Foundation. Leadership support has also come from The Whitehead Family Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, and philanthropists Patrick J. and Lore Harp McGovern and Thomas H. Lee.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 2, 1996.