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Whitehead breaks ground for new research wing

More than 150 leaders from business, government, science and education joined former Senator Paul Tsongas, chairman of the board of trustees, and the faculty and staff of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in celebrating groundbreaking ceremonies for the Institute's new research wing on Tuesday, June 7.

Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, Governor William F. Weld, State Mr. Michael J. Barrett and keynote speaker Dr. Samuel O. Thier, president-designate of Massachusetts General Hospital, lauded the achievements of the 12-year-old Institute and emphasized the importance of basic science research as a foundation for advances in health care and for economic growth and development in the Commonwealth.

Other speakers included Dr. Gerald R. Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute; Susan Whitehead, an attorney and daughter of Whitehead founder Edwin C. "Jack" Whitehead; Dr. Melanie Barron, science coordinator for the Cambridge Public Schools; and Drs. Peter Kim and Robert Weinberg, members of the Whitehead Institute.

The Whitehead's new six-story research wing, adding approximately 76,000 gross square feet, will provide state-of-the-art facilities to extend pathfinding programs in transgenic science, infectious disease research and structural biology. It will enable Whitehead to fulfill its mission: to improve human health and welfare through creative applications of the most advanced technologies in biomedical science. The total cost of the building project is $35 million.

As part of the groundbreaking ceremonies, the Whitehead Institute launched a two-year, $12 million "Campaign for Discovery" to provide funds for the new wing and essential seed money for new research projects. It has received a gift of $3 million from the Whitehead Charitable Foundation to kick off the campaign.

"We are especially pleased that the Whitehead family is continuing to play a major leadership role in the future of the Institute," Mr. Tsongas said. "This is a critical time for basic biomedical research. Sweeping changes in the field have opened the way for dramatic advances in disease diagnosis and therapy. It is important that leading basic research institutions such as the Whitehead Institute have the necessary resources to explore these new frontiers-to solve today's daunting health care problems and meet the challenges of tomorrow."

In his welcoming address, Mr. Tsongas added, "This groundbreaking really has a double significance. One obviously is a reaffirmation of our area-Cambridge, greater Boston and Massachusetts-as a leader in science. But equally important is the message that science and technology are the only rational and long-term base for economic growth and new jobs. The country has finally begun to understand that if you're going to survive and compete in the brave new world of economic competition globally, you must have success in basic science."

Governor Weld, who described the Whitehead Institute as "the Menlo Park of medical research," said that a groundbreaking is "like the launching of a rocket, a whole new world to be discovered; and I'm very pleased that that exploration is going to be taking place right here in Kendall Square."

Dr. Fink said that the Institute's decision to build a new wing reflects the dramatic changes that have occurred in biomedical science over the past decade. These changes include enormous developments in DNA-based technologies, providing a foundation for gene therapy and genetic diagnosis; new ways of understanding the structure and function of molecules to combat disease; and advances in synthetic chemistry and robotics that have made exploration of the human genome a reality.

"Extraordinary young scientists at the Whitehead Institute have played a vital role in pioneering both the intellectual and technical achievements that created today's science," Dr. Fink said. "The addition to the building will ensure that these young researchers have the space and resources they need to advance their work well into the 21st century."

Congressman Kennedy called on the business leaders in the audience to help ensure continued support for basic science research and the transfer of that research to applications that meet the needs of the working people of the state and the country. He expressed hope that biomedical research will not get lost in the current debate over health care reform.

"Affordable, quality health care must be a right for all Americans, but at the same time we cannot forget that improved health for our citizens hinges on the medical innovations made possible through biomedical research. To achieve these goals, we must guarantee that increased support for biomedical research is part and parcel to any health care reform proposal and that biomedical research is not eroded by proposals to freeze indirect medical cost reimbursements," Mr. Kennedy said.

In his keynote address, "Medicine and Biomedical Research: the New Realities," Dr. Thier too focused on the changing environment for biomedical research. He noted that pressures in the private sector are reforming health care even before the implementation of government programs, but they are doing so without any commitment to research or education, and "therein lies the real threat.

"Reorganization and reengineering in health care hopefully will hold down costs and hopefully will improve efficiency, but it misses the point," Dr. Thier said. The issue is that the real cost savings and the improvement in patient outcomes will not come from reorganizations, they will come from new knowledge properly applied and we are not making that point clearly enough."

Dr. Thier used gene therapy for cystic fibrosis, which is expected to greatly reduce hospitalizations and suffering associated with this disease, as an example of the potential impact of basic science on health care and quality of life. He explained that understanding the basic mechanisms of disease-being able to document susceptibility and resistance to disease-provides opportunities to design health care programs that are precise and even tailor made. "So when we talk about the need for education, for prevention and for diagnosis, all of these depend on the kind of fundamental science that is going on at this institution [the Whitehead Institute], and it is critical that we support this," Dr. Thier concluded.

Senator Barrett spoke for himself and Cambridge Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves, who had to leave the groundbreaking to attend graduation ceremonies at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, in expressing pleasure that the expansion of the Whitehead Institute was occurring in Cambridge. He noted that an esteemed national economist had once predicted that Massachusetts and Cambridge would not be a site for biomedicine and biotechnology because of the concentration of pharmaceutical companies in New Jersey, and the belief that funding for basic research would be so dependent on pharmaceutical company investment.

"The event today, the decisions by all of you in the audience, and the generous support of the Whitehead family principally, has skewed the course of history perhaps just a bit. and has brought an opportunity to this City and this State that perhaps would not have been here despite the other resources we have. I'm delighted to see an expansion occurring that's going to benefit the world in the decades to come," Mr. Barrett said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 36).

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