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Published On January 23, 2018


Investing in Our Future

Peter L. Slavin and Timothy G. Ferris discuss the importance of research funding.

Two major discoveries featured in this issue are very, very small. The first is the organoid—a tiny version of a human organ that can be grown and studied in the laboratory, yielding keen insights about the human body. Organoids offer researchers across specialties a new way to see both how organs develop and how they respond to genetic changes and treatments.

The second frontier, nanotechnology, is even smaller—by many orders of magnitude, in fact. Researchers in this field aim to engineer microscopic materials that will lock onto specific structures in the body, such as a tumor, and either work as a diagnostic tool or deliver a payload of medication.

These two exciting developments are united by more than tininess. Both rely on a long, rich history of basic discovery. Nanotechnology—existing in science fiction for a very long time—was first explored as a potentially feasible technology in the 1980s, but it was decades before it saw its first real-world applications. Organoids became practical much more quickly, but their development depended on more than 50 years of incremental insights into growing and maintaining cell cultures outside the human body.

The investment in long-range, basic research leading to these kinds of innovations is crucial to the future of medicine. It is also increasingly under threat. The amount of research funded by the National Institutes of Health declined by nearly 25% between 2003 and 2015, and that decrease has caused significant harm, particularly to researchers starting out in their careers—which, in turn, is threatening the next generation of science (“A Future Defunded”).

At Massachusetts General Hospital, members of our research community authored about 7,000 journal articles in 2017, many focused on questions that are decades away from direct application. Laying this fundamental groundwork for the future, however, requires support, and federal funding for science is clearly falling short.

The MGH Research Institute is working to fight this tide. This initiative looks for new ways to fund the research happening in more than 30 of the hospital’s departments, centers and institutions. The institute has created groundbreaking alliances with industry and venture capitalists that help our researchers continue their investigations into the future—into epigenetics, cancer immunotherapy, neurosciences, the microbiome and many other promising fields.

The questions that scientists are raising today are potentially game-changing, and the time and support required to explore those questions must not be viewed as optional. Indeed, if we are to advance medicine and improve health and humanity, committing resources to research is imperative