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Big challenges abound for next Harvard Medical School dean

Dr. Joseph Martin is proud of starting the cancer center. Dr. Joseph Martin is proud of starting the cancer center.

Dr. Joseph B. Martin, 68, steps down at the end of this month after 10 years as dean of Harvard Medical School. Martin, who oversaw dramatic changes to the school's curriculum, plans to take a one-year sabbatical and then increase his work with the Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration & Repair, a group that is trying to more quickly develop drugs to treat Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders. He will speak at the graduation on Thursday , when the 185 members of the class of 2007 become doctors. Martin spoke to reporter Liz Kowalczyk about his plans and challenges for the next dean.

Q Which single accomplishment are you most proud of?

A There are five things I would list. The establishment of the (Dana-Farber/Harvard) cancer center bringing together all of our investigators for purposes of research. That really has transformed the way people here at the medical school work. The cancer center has surprised everyone the most. There was great skepticism on the part of the external reviewers who came through to look at what we were trying to do. The skepticism was over whether Harvard and its hospitals could work together. There's a deep-seated sense we're divided here. It really has led to an extraordinary increase in cancer research. Second is the center for neurodegeneration and repair. Third is the Broad Institute with MIT and Harvard. Fourth is the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Lastly, it's getting our education reform accomplished over five years. It was very symbolic of the importance Harvard places on medical education.

Q What do you wish you'd accomplished that you didn't?

A We are putting together a powerful and transforming clinical research center across the entire system. We want to do the same in other areas of research that we did for cancer. We got a planning grant from the (National Institutes of Health) a year and a half ago. We will be sending our application in this October for funding, $25 million a year for five years, one of the largest grants Harvard will have received if successful. I wish I had seen it done.

Q What are the two biggest challenges ahead for your replacement?

A The first is to deal with challenges from the NIH budget for research. The doubling of the budget has led to a rapid expansion of investigators within our system who depend on NIH support. We're anticipating we now will face level-funding in terms of real dollars. This is a powerfully negative incentive for young people who are planning their own careers. Opportunities to explore other funding mechanisms are going to become even more important. The second is the development of the Allston campus. It's not a question of just who goes to Allston but how do we implement the best science program.

Q You're interested in translating basic science research into treatments more quickly. What specifically can be done at Harvard to accomplish that?

A We need to look at whether research can be carried forward as a more collaborative endeavor and whether intellectual property rules restrict collaboration. When an idea is licensed it's often licensed too early, either because they want to protect it or don't want someone else to do it. Many of these get put on the shelf. Can we find new models to bring those ideas to general knowledge? That would be a cultural change in how we do things. It's an area I want to explore.