Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Great Opportunity for Medical Research Philanthropy: Fund Team Science

by LaTese Briggs, Philanthropy Advisory Service Program Analyst, FasterCures

As seen in Philanthropy News Digest:
Today we are plagued by a variety of vexing and complex diseases. Many of us are affected, directly or indirectly, by cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and heart disease. While there is indeed an army of researchers working persistently to find cures and lifesaving treatments to these and other diseases, the rate at which they are making discoveries is impeded by limited resources and a reward system that discourages collaboration.

While there is a common misconception that most biomedical discoveries that lead to new treatments originate in the laboratories of major pharmaceutical companies, many groundbreaking discoveries are actually made in the labs of academic researchers. These labs are usually severely underfunded, and the intrinsic reward system and career growth opportunities for researchers almost exclusively hinges on the amount of grant funding they are able to secure. In a constrained and highly competitive funding environment, this often indirectly discourages collaboration among researchers, thus slowing progress on finding answers to complex questions in medical research.

Unfortunately, the development of new technologies such as genome sequencing has led the academic research community to realize that many diseases are more complex than originally thought. To tackle the biological complexity of these diseases, researchers across different disciplines need to work together. But to enable this type of "team science," we need to reconsider how the structure of philanthropic research funding affects the research itself and acknowledge that in order to improve the current research paradigm, we need to change the way academic research is funded.

Recognizing this, a new model for medical research philanthropy with an emphasis on scientific collaboration is being brought to fruition at institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Scripps Research Institute, and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Each of these institutes initially was funded by seed money from private donors, and each has gone on to become a dramatically successful nonprofit research organization at the forefront of biomedical science. And because they unite multiple academic institutions and bring together experts from various disciplines to work on high-risk, high-impact projects in the absence of traditional funding barriers, they promote collaboration by their very design. The results speak for themselves. Some of their contributions to biomedicine to date include identifying new genetic risk factors for diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism; the classification of human cancers by their genomic alterations rather than by their location in the body; and the identification of key genes that regulate stem-cell development. These initial successes have attracted more traditional capital (including public-sector investments) to the field and promoted additional giving by other philanthropic organizations, further expanding the pool of capital available for high-impact research.

But you don't need tens of millions to found a new institute to make an impact in the team science arena. Donors and foundations can choose instead to fund interdisciplinary teams or multi-center collaborations focused on biomedical discoveries with the potential to lead to new treatment options and cures. Philanthropic gifts can also be directed to organizations like the Melanoma Research Alliance, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund that already fund team science.

Philanthropic opportunities in medical research — funding team science among them — will be a hot topic at our annual Partnering for Cures meeting, November 28-30, in New York City. At this year's meeting, more than seven hundred venture capitalists, philanthropists, policy makers, biotechnology and pharmaceutical company executives, patient advocates, and medical researchers will gather for a series of engaging panels and one-on-one meetings, with the ultimate goal of advancing the field of biomedical research and finding cures to a range of diseases. Partnering for Cures is uniquely positioned to introduce new and emerging foundations and philanthropists to the fundamentals of medical philanthropy and to provide more seasoned givers with a range of due-diligence opportunities. We hope you'll join us in further exploring how we can all work together to facilitate the flow of philanthropic capital into medical research in the most impactful ways possible.

About FasterCures and the Philanthropy Advisory Service

The FasterCures Philanthropy Advisory Service (PAS) was specifically created to help philanthropists make informed investment decisions on giving to biomedical research. Since its inception, PAS has successfully channeled funding to a number of high-impact collaborative biomedical research projects and has created a pair of giving guides: Getting Started: The Medical Research and Development Primer and Giving Smarter: Building a High-Impact Medical Philanthropy Portfolio.

About LaTese Briggs

LaTese Briggs is the Philanthropy Advisory Service (PAS) program analyst at FasterCures. Briggs previously served as a pharmaceutical market analyst for Decision Resources, a Boston-based research and consulting firm serving the biopharmaceutical industry. In that capacity, she provided expert analytics on the state of research and clinical development, including research challenges, market drivers, and unmet patient needs in the infectious disease space. She is trained as a biochemist and completed her doctoral studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and her postdoctoral training at Harvard University/Broad Institute, where she focused on chemical biology and early drug discovery. In addition, she has received a number of honors, including being named a Gates Millennium Scholar, and has authored several scientific articles.

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