MIT News - Whitehead Institute MIT News is dedicated to communicating to the media and the public the news and achievements of the students, faculty, staff and the greater MIT community. en Wed, 20 Nov 2019 15:20:01 -0500 “From Controversy to Cure” documentary chronicles the biotech boom in Cambridge, Massachusetts Film looks at how Kendall Square became a beacon for industries working on treatments for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Wed, 20 Nov 2019 15:20:01 -0500 MIT Video Productions <p>Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is home to the greatest concentration of biotechnology companies in the world. Once a salt marsh on the Charles River, the now-bustling enclave surrounding&nbsp;the MIT campus has evolved from a desolate wasteland of empty parking lots and crumbling warehouses in the 1970s to a&nbsp;vibrant&nbsp;ecosystem of innovation: the beating heart of the nation’s biotechnology industry today.</p> <p>But how did this urban rags-to-riches tale begin? How did one of Cambridge’s&nbsp;least-appealing&nbsp;areas — one locals avoided after dark for decades — become a beacon for titans of industry and innovative startups working on treatments for devastating diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes?</p> <p>“<a href=";">From Controversy to Cure: Inside the Cambridge Biotech Boom</a>”<em>&nbsp;</em>is a new documentary film by MIT Video Productions premiering this week with <a href=";mc_cid=857654e78d&amp;mc_eid=83c48734c1&amp;mc_cid=217d9c00f3&amp;mc_eid=60c3735fed">showings</a> at MIT. It tells the story of the long, largely unplanned, and often haphazard series of events in Cambridge and beyond that ignited a “bio boom” in&nbsp;the greater&nbsp;Boston&nbsp;region.</p> <p>“This isn’t just about Kendall Square: It is a story of how, in a very unusual community, scientific breakthroughs were translated into societal benefits ... the treatment and control of disease,” says MIT Institute Professor Phillip Sharp, whose pioneering research on split genes earned him a Nobel Prize in 1993.</p> <p>In 1978, Sharp and Harvard University biochemist Wally Gilbert founded Biogen, a company using the new field of recombinant DNA to develop treatments for diseases that include leukemia and multiple sclerosis. The company became the cornerstone on which biotech was built in Kendall Square, but that growth took time — and community input.&nbsp;</p> <p>“It was important that this community was supportive of the science and the universities,” says Sharp, adding that the unprecedented research taking place in molecular biology during the 1970s made many in Cambridge uncomfortable.</p> <p>In the film, he sheds light on the June 1977&nbsp;Cambridge City Council hearings to discuss DNA experimentation, which led to the city council’s decision to regulate the industry. Sharp recalls Mayor Alfred Vellucci’s special hearing to grill scientists from MIT and Harvard about potential risks of genetic engineering.</p> <p>“Our response to Mayor Vellucci wasn’t [Sturm und Drang] ... it was, let’s work with him. We have nothing to hide, but we think this science is very important. We thought, let’s work with the city and convince them that we are working in a prudent, transparent way. That ultimately brought us to a place where the community accepted this technology and biotech.”</p> <p>Those tense hearings, along with other scenes of Kendall Square’s transformation, are brought to life in the MIT film through well-preserved archival&nbsp;footage. The MIT Video Productions team dusted off hours of archived video clips to take its audience back in time so that it, too, could witness the transformation of&nbsp;an urban district&nbsp;and an industry.</p> <p>This ambitious project, two years in the making, was initiated by Larry Gallagher, the film’s executive producer and former senior director of&nbsp;MIT Video Productions.&nbsp;“We had recently completed a series of documentaries in support of the MIT2016 celebration and we were looking for other opportunities to produce content of historical importance. Kendall Square was booming and we knew there was a rich and fascinating story about how it all came to be,”&nbsp;Gallagher says. “For several years, we had been applying a generous gift by Neil and Jane Pappalardo to produce content that highlights the excellence of MIT, in all its forms. In this case, Ann and Phil Sharp joined the Pappalardos in funding the most significant documentary we have had the good fortune to produce.” &nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>The film’s director, Joe McMaster, a former television producer at WGBH’s Nova, says advances in science and technology were only part of this story.&nbsp;“Even the story of the land here in Cambridge is crucial: People probably don’t realize that this area was once cleared to make way for a branch of NASA to come and conduct electronics research for the space race, a project that went away. So many unexpected factors contributed to the introduction of biotech. It’s easy to tell a story of A led to B led to C ... but that was not the case here: It’s a much more complicated, and therefore interesting, story.”</p> <p>The MVP team conducted more than 40 interviews during the documentary process, and the film includes a range of voices, from biotech executives to industry newcomers. Future plans include an archive to comprise all that footage, plus the film itself, a resource that Gallagher hopes will inspire Kendall Square’s next generation of innovators.</p> <p>Among those interviewed is Susan Whitehead, vice chair and life board member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, who told the story of her father Jack Whitehead’s $150 million contribution to the institute. She credits the film with shining a light on biotech’s early innovators and investors. “Biotech is slow tech,” Whitehead explains. “And slow tech found a hospitable environment here. Twenty-five years ago, Kendall Square had no Novartis or Pfizer or Bristol-Myers Squibb — but there was an appetite for research plus the patience to nurture it — and industry has followed.”</p> <p>“People are interested in the history of societies,” says Sharp. “Here is a major fundamental advance in our science and how our society solves problems. It’s fortunate that in this day and age, with media and people living longer, that this video has been able to capture that moment — to show how science had to move through a series of events to create new ways of solving problems.”</p> "From Controversy to Cure: Inside the Cambridge Biotech Boom" documents how science, engineering, politics, the space race, and urban renewal transformed a desolate Kendall Square into the biotechnology hub we recognize today. At left is the undeveloped plot that is now home to Draper Laboratory, as seen from what is now Galileo Way, looking west, with 400 Technology Square at far left.Images courtesy of MIT Video ProductionsWhitehead Institute, MIT Museum, Koch Institute, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), Technology Licensing Office, Technology and society, Broad Institute, Office of Open Learning, History of MIT, Kendall Square, Bioengineering and biotechnology, Cambridge, Boston and region, Film and Television, Biotechnology Ankur Jain awarded Packard Foundation Fellowship Whitehead Institute member and assistant professor of biology receives one of the most prestigious non-governmental awards for early-career scientists. Mon, 21 Oct 2019 13:20:01 -0400 Merrill Meadow | Whitehead Institute <p>The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has announced that Ankur Jain,&nbsp;Whitehead Institute member and assistant professor of biology at MIT, has been named a Packard Fellow for Science and Engineering. The Packard Foundation Fellowships are one of the most prestigious and well-funded non-governmental awards for early-career scientists.</p> <p>Each year, the foundation invites 50 university presidents to nominate two early-career professors each from their institutions; from those 100 nominees, an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers select the fellows, who receive individual grants of $875,000 over five years. The 2019 class comprises 22 fellows.</p> <p>“We are extraordinarily pleased that Ankur has received such clear and substantive affirmation of his pioneering research on the role that RNAs play in devastating neurological diseases,” says Whitehead Institute Director David C. Page. “This exciting work is at the forefront of soft-matter physics and cell biology, and could well open new chapters in RNA regulation specifically and in cell biology more broadly.”</p> <p>“I am very grateful for the Packard Foundation’s support of our continued investigations of how RNA aggregation contributes to disease,” says Jain.</p> <p>Jain has discovered that certain RNAs can form aggregates, clumping together into membrane-less gels. This process, known as phase separation, has been widely studied in proteins, but not in RNA. He has found that RNA gels occur in, and could contribute to, a set of neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington’s disease. These conditions, known as repeat expansion diseases, are marked by abnormal repetition of short sequences of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA and RNA. The RNAs containing these sequences are more likely to clump together.</p> <p>The fellowship will enable Jain to advance his research program around this phenomenon. “Although it is well-appreciated that RNA can form aggregates in test tubes, the biological implications of this process are not yet known,” he explains. “The award will allow us to examine how RNA aggregates affect cell function and ultimately contribute to neurological disease.”</p> <p>Jain joined Whitehead Institute and MIT in 2018, after conducting postdoctoral research in the lab of Ronald Vale at the University of California at San Francisco. He earned a doctorate in biophysics and computational biology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013, and received his bachelor’s degree (with honors) in biotechnology and biochemical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in 2007.</p> <p>Past Packard Fellows have gone on to receive a range of accolades, including the Nobel Prize in chemistry and physics, the Fields Medal, the Alan T. Waterman Award, MacArthur Fellowships, and elections to the National Academies. They include Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who chairs the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel, and Sangeeta Bhatia, the <span class="person__info__def">John and Dorthy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT, who is a member of all three National Academies (science, engineering, and medicine).</span></p> Whitehead Institute member and MIT assistant professor of biology Ankur JainPhoto: Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead InstituteWhitehead Institute, Biology, School of Science, honors and fellowships, Faculty, RNA, Disease Two from MIT elected to the National Academy of Medicine for 2019 Sangeeta Bhatia and Richard Young recognized for their contributions to “advancement of the medical sciences, health care, and public health.” Mon, 21 Oct 2019 10:00:00 -0400 Anne Trafton | MIT News Office <p>Sangeeta Bhatia, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of health sciences and technology, and Richard Young, an MIT professor of biology, are among the 100 new members elected to the <a href="">National Academy of Medicine</a> today.</p> <p>Bhatia is already a member of the National Academies of Science and of Engineering, making her just the 25th person to be elected to all three national academies. Earlier this year, Paula Hammond, head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, also joined that exclusive group; MIT faculty members Emery Brown, Arup Chakraborty, James Collins, and Robert Langer have also achieved that distinction.</p> <p>Bhatia, who is a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, develops micro- and nanoscale technologies to improve human health. She has designed nanoparticles and other materials to <a href="">diagnose</a> and <a href="">treat</a> disease, including cancer, and she has also engineered human microlivers that can be used to <a href="">model liver disease</a> and test new drugs. She and her students have founded several biotechnology companies to further develop these technologies.</p> <p>Young, who is a member of MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, studies the regulatory circuitry that controls cell state and differentiation. His lab uses experimental and computational techniques to determine how signaling pathways, transcription factors, chromatin regulators, and small RNAs control gene expression. Since defects in gene expression can cause diabetes, cancer, hypertension, immune deficiencies, neurological disorders, and other