Faced with the threat of losing tens of millions of dollars in federal research money, scientists in Harvard's sprawling medical empire will collaborate as never before.
Under a program announced yesterday, the fiercely competitive Harvard teaching hospitals have agreed to pool some of their research efforts to shorten the time it takes to turn discoveries into treatments.
There will be matchmakers to introduce scientists who have never met because they have been hunkered in their isolated research labs. A massive, centralized database will give Harvard's researchers instant access to one another's work.
But the most significant change involves how the National Institutes of Health will distribute money to pay for clinical research and for translating basic laboratory findings into patient treatment.
The individual hospitals now receive separate grants worth a total of more than $20 million a year for their own clinical research centers, but now the money, $117.7 million over the next five years, will go to Harvard Medical School, which will award the money to teams of researchers spread among its various affiliated hospitals.
The two other Boston medical schools are among 14 academic medical centers that will share $533 million over the next five years through the initiative. Boston University will get $23 million and Tufts University will get $20 million.
"There has always been a disincentive to collaborate," said Dr. Lee Nadler, codirector of Harvard's new Clinical and Translational Science Center, which will link researchers and allocate Harvard's grant money. "In many ways this is like a start-up company with venture capital money. I am . . . excited about it."
Nadler, a lymphoma specialist who has worked at Harvard for nearly 30 years, acknowledged that the new venture will require a major culture change. Under the old system, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Harvard affiliate, designed and conducted their own studies and the data belonged to the hospital. In the new collaboration, everything will be shared, including credit for discoveries, he said.
Nadler likened the new system to a lunch-table discussion he had years ago with former Harvard researcher Richard Kolodner, who was studying a gene in yeast. As Kolodner described his work, another colleague asked whether the gene would have any connection to colon cancer. Less than two years later, Kolodner's work showed that colon cancer risk is connected to this gene. That discovery led to the development of a new diagnostic test for people who have a strong family history of colon cancer.
"That happened because the right people were sitting around the table that night over dinner," Nadler said. "This type of thing will happen so much more now."
Harvard's transformation is being spurred by the National Institutes of Health, the agency that funds most biomedical research. In 2005, the NIH told medical schools that they will no longer qualify for general clinical research grants after 2012 unless they reorganize into collaborative centers that will more quickly translate discoveries into tangible benefits for patients. The vast majority of NIH grants to Harvard and its hospitals are not for such clinical research, however, and are unaffected by the collaboration mandate.
It can take decades for a basic science discovery to become a treatment, in part because scientists across a broad spectrum of fields do not know how to communicate with each other, said Barbara Alving, director of the National Center for Research Resources, the NIH office that oversees the new collaborations.
"We are fostering communication along the pipeline so the bioengineers can talk to the physicians who are doing the clinical trials," she said.
At Harvard, some of the earliest communications about the new collaborative were about money.
Shortly after he started as dean of Harvard Medical School last September, Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier sat with the heads of each of the school's affiliated hospitals and asked them to forego the traditional 40 percent administrative share their institutions would normally receive from these clinical grants. The hospitals - Beth Israel Deaconess, Brigham and Women's, Children's, and Mass. General - agreed.
"This has never happened," said Nadler, who was at that meeting. "I have been here my whole life, and I have never seen this happen."
The teaching hospitals and Harvard University will also devote an additional $15 million a year to the new collaboration.
Flier acknowledged that the NIH dictate will probably help Harvard forge bonds among its many departments and hospitals that could not have been accomplished without the pressure.
"If we succeed in doing what we are trying to do, then it will become far easier for studies that relate to specific diseases to be carried out for the maximum benefit of patients," he said. "We also will be training people to carry out this type of collaborative research in the future."
Last year, Johns Hopkins University was awarded one of the new grants from NIH in an earlier round of funding, and leaders there have since found collaboration to be a strong learning experience.
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.