UMass Medical at forefront of emerging technology

Issue February 2012 By Michael F. Collins, MD, FACP

The University of Massachusetts Medical School was proud to host the Massachusetts Bar Association House of Delegates at our Worcester campus last month. The meeting took place steps from the very spot where the Albert Sherman Center - a state-of-the-art, 500,000-square-foot research and academic center -- is rising on our campus. In scope, the building, which will open later this year, is impressive, but what truly stands out about this super-structure is what it signifies: the future of the life sciences research and development economy in Massachusetts and beyond.

The reason that the Sherman Center is so important to the future of biotechnology and the state's economy is simple: we are at a moment like no other when it comes to reaping the benefits of a generation of biomedical research. The faculty that will work and teach in the Sherman Center will do so using tools and technologies that have finally begun to bridge that gulf between laboratory discoveries and therapies for patients.

The first sequencing of the human genome took 10 years and cost $1 billion; today, human genomes can be sequenced in days for a few thousand dollars. Fifteen years ago, the phrase "RNA interference" didn't exist; today, that Nobel Prize-winning discovery by a UMass Medical School scientist is the foundation for an entire industry aimed at bringing new therapeutics to the marketplace. Biomedical research is coming of age, and one only has to look inside the Sherman Center to see how different the world now looks.

Inside, you will see the RNA Therapeutics Institute, co-directed by our Nobel Laureate Craig Mello, where researchers will be studying ways of using our own genetic code to turn off disease-causing genes. You will find scientists in the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine developing therapies based on reprogramming cells in order to grow new ones. The Gene Therapy Center has already introduced clinical trials for diseases like prostate cancer. And working side by side with these renowned scientists will be experts in bioinformatics and genomics, clinical trial design and translational medicine, many in our new Department of Quantitative Health Sciences, where we work to develop and test tools for improving patient outcomes from both cutting-edge treatments and well-established therapies.

All of this will happen with one of our most precious resources -- our students -- "embedded" in the Sherman Center in new learning communities. Here, they will work closely with each other and with faculty in a new collaborative model of medical education that reinforces our leadership in this important mission.

The benefits to the commonwealth will be as impressive as the building itself: new discoveries will mean new investments in biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, in new technologies and new infrastructure. Biomedical science -- already the cornerstone of the new Massachusetts economy -- will continue to lead Massachusetts and the nation, and at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, we're proud to be at the center of this effort.

Michael F. Collins is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and senior vice president for the health sciences, University of Massachusetts.