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Forward Looking

More than just a hospital, MGH is one of America’s leaders in biomedical research, as Peter L. Slavin and David F. Torchiana explain.


More than 30 years ago, when molecular biologist Jack Szostak began his work with telomeres, scientists already knew that these microscopic caps on the ends of chromosomes somehow protect the chromosomes. Szostak employed two very basic living tools to test a far-fetched idea: Could telomeres in pond scum be transplanted into baker’s yeast and confer the same protection? Though the two organisms are vastly different in evolutionary terms, the experiment worked. Szostak, now at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered—along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider—an enzyme, telomerase, responsible for telomeres’ upkeep; in 2009 the trio shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

MGH Flag

Julia Bishop, Courtesy of MGH

A silk flag, possibly created for Ether Day in 1943

Telomere research has opened new lines of inquiry, ones that extend to human health. Too much telomerase in cancer cells, researchers have found, promotes the disease; could we inhibit it to fight malignancies? Or, if having too little telomerase in normal cells leads to senescence, could we boost its levels to fight the effects of aging?

For six years, Proto has chronicled such scientific sagas, taking readers to the far-flung locales where medical advances unfold. Quite often, however, the magazine’s writers find crucial pieces of their stories right here at MGH. That’s hardly surprising. Conducting the largest hospital-based biomedical research program in the nation is an essential part of our mission. As just one measure of how productive that enterprise has become, this year MGH executed 159 licensing agreements to transfer commercial rights for technologies invented here, applied for 182 patents and was issued 85 patents.

In this issue, as we mark the hospital’s 200th anniversary, we have departed from Proto’s usual broad focus to turn the lens on the advances that have emerged—and that continue to emerge—from MGH. With nearly double our normal number of pages, we include chapters on the brain, infectious diseases, genetics, cancer, the engineered body, transplantation and molecular biology. Though this single issue can’t be a complete compendium of MGH science—from Alzheimer’s to zebrafish—it does offer a taste of the research under way as well as some of the extraordinary work that helped bring us to this point. Absent from these pages are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of biomedical detective stories that our scientists are bringing to conclusion, toward treatments and cures—and happy endings.

In describing the importance of research, Louis Pasteur said: “I beseech you to take interest in these sacred domains so expressively called laboratories. Ask that there be more and that they be adorned, for these are the temples of the future, wealth and well-being. It is here that humanity will grow, strengthen and improve.” We agree.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians
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