Interview with Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher
Dr. Glimcher is the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College & Provost for Medical Affairs, Cornell University
by Howard Johnson
I recently met Dr. Laurie Glimcher at the event to announce the new Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (Tri-I TDI), formed by Weill Cornell Medical College, The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in partnership with Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd.
Dr. Glimcher can be seen at the far left in the front row of the photo above, among the other principals from the three institutions and Takeda Pharmaceuticals. They are holding the proclamation from the formation of Tri-TDI from October 1st.
Tri-I TDI is a pioneering institute, designed to expedite early-stage drug discovery into innovative treatments and therapies for patients. This novel partnership of three leading academic institutions with a major pharmaceutical company was made possible by two significant philanthropic grants, $15 million from Lewis and Ali Sanders, and $5 million from Howard and Abby Milstein.
Tri-I TDI Research from Weill Cornell Medical College on Vimeo.
Before joining Weill Cornell as Dean last year, Dr. Glimcher was the Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she was director of the Division of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where she headed one of the top immunology programs in the world. She also served as Senior Physician and Rheumatologist at the Brigham and Woman’s Hospital.
Dr. Glimcher received her postdoctoral training at Harvard and in the Laboratory of Immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology. She received her BA degree from Radcliffe College and her MD from Harvard Medical School. As an immunologist, her primary research interests are the biochemical and genetic approaches that elucidate the molecular pathways that regulate CD4 T helper cell development and activation.
Dr. Glimcher is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. She is the former President of the American Association of Immunologists. She is a member of the American Asthma Foundation, Immune Diseases Institute, Health Care Ventures, Burroughs-Wellcome Fund and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Scientific Advisory Boards, and serves on the Cancer Research Institute Fellowship Committee. She is on the Corporate Board of Directors of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Corporation and the Waters Corporation.
Dr. Glimcher speaks nationally and internationally on rheumatology, immunology, skeletal biology and translational medicine and has contributed more than 350 scholarly articles and papers to the medical literature.
I asked Dr. Glimcher to answer a few questions of potential importance to New York City bioscience entrepreneurs.
1. Congratulations on forming Tri-I TDI. Can you tell us more about it?
First of all, Tri-I TDI is a true collaboration among three of this country’s world-renowned academic medical institutions. And then it’s also an important partnership with the private sector. The key here is that several entities will be working together with the goal that this collaborative institute will become more than the sum of its parts, and new medicines will be discovered and brought through development to patients that otherwise may not have been found. I was struck by the simple truth in an old African saying quoted by Dr. Tadataka Yamada of Takeda Pharmaceuticals at our kickoff event today. The saying is, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk together.”
Secondly, we believe that Tri-I TDI will help contribute to solving an important societal problem: how to improve the efficiency of drug development. The process is fragmented, with many wasteful steps, on top of the structural, intellectual and funding barriers that have made it so difficult to translate basic research into clinical application. With academia and industry working together closely, guiding each other in the laboratory, we have a better chance to translate research discoveries into lasting medical contributions, and to do so with far greater efficiency.
2. We understand that the three academic medical centers will drive the basic science. How will Takeda be involved? Is there room for other private sector involvement?
The partnership with Takeda is focused on developing small chemical molecules. Takeda is a proven leader in pharmaceutical development. Medical chemists and pharmacologists from Takeda will bring their private sector experience to the academic setting by helping to conduct drug discovery research in the institute’s laboratories. Takeda is a research-based global company with its main focus on pharmaceuticals and a world leader in drug development and manufacturing.
The institute will seek to create intellectual property, which will be retained by each scientist’s home institution, and that can be further developed by an open field of industry collaborators. It will facilitate more efficient sharing of institutional core facilities while continuing to form industry partnerships with various pharmaceutical companies to further advance research investigations.
3. What will the Tri-I TDI focus on? How will it be managed?
Tri-I TDI is an independent, nonprofit institute, which will have its own scientific advisory board and board of directors, will build a strong bridge between early-stage research discoveries and the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic agents for myriad health challenges, reflecting the diverse interests of the member institutions’ faculty. Projects that will be tackled could range from addressing the developing world’s most deadly diseases, tuberculosis and malaria among them, to Alzheimer’s, cancer, HIV, heart disease and obesity, to neglected or “orphan” diseases that afflict small numbers of people. The institute will select research projects that hold the greatest scientific promise and present the most innovative hypotheses.
Tri-I TDI will pool institutional resources to facilitate the translation of research results, initially in small chemical molecules, and later with biologic therapies and molecular imaging, into the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic agents.
4. You have been quoted as saying that U.S. healthcare is facing a watershed moment. What do you mean by that?
This is an exhilarating time in medicine. We are now harnessing technologies and techniques to understand the human genome and the molecular underpinnings of disease, developments that we could only have dreamed about just a decade ago. At Weill Cornell, we encourage our clinicians, researchers and medical students to become “disruptive innovators”, by using these new tools creatively to advance the medical care of patients in New York City and beyond. Our Belfer Research center, an 18-story building on the Upper East Side will open in January, and will house the Tri-I TDI’s medicinal chemistry activities on its top floor and will be a new hub on our campus for scientific discoveries in this era of precision medicine. We are excited about the potential for new medical research that will become part of patient care in the near future.
However, there is also a threat in our country today to the research being done in our academic medical centers, the jewels in the crown of U.S. biomedical research. Federal funding of scientific research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is declining, and we are running the risk as a nation of losing a generation of scientists to other endeavors or to other countries. Grant funding is now only making it to the top 10% of applications, and thus many worthy projects from both young and established scientists at great institutions are not getting backed. This can be reasonably called a crisis, and a problem that we are shortsighted not to address as a country as it will affect the delivery of medical care for generations to come.
One of the reasons we were able to establish Tri-I TDI is that there were significant philanthropic contributions made by Mr. Sanders and Mr. Milstein to help fund it. If the Federal government can no longer afford to allocate what it once did to basic medical research, we will need larger contributions from private individuals and foundations (philanthropy) and the private sector.
5. Can you tell us more specifically what cuts in Federal spending for medical research mean to New York?
New York State’s academic medical centers received $1.3 billion in NIH funding in 2012.
New York is the third-largest beneficiary of Federal medical grants, only behind Massachusetts and California. Some 8% of the State economy is represented by academic medical centers, according to the economic consultancy Tripp Umbach. And every $1 of investment in medical research returns $7.50 to the State. Therefore, we estimated that the impact of the Federal budget sequestration in Fiscal Year 2013 on New York State alone was potentially $1.255 billion based on cuts of $167 million to our medical research facilities.
I would like to see New York State to take on some of this challenge, to do more to bridge the medical research funding gap caused by the decline in Federal funding, and to invest further in this important sector of the State’s economy. We have seen what state initiatives in California (for stem cell research) and Texas (for cancer) have done. It’s early yet, but it certainly can be said that the commitments of significant money to medical research in these two States has enhanced their ability to recruit first-rate medical researchers.
New York City has the opportunity to be the best medical research center in the world, as well as a hub for medical entrepreneurship. Nowhere else is there the density of talent and world-class medical research institutions like in New York City. Tri-I TDI is a great example of what can happen here if traditional walls are broken down and individuals and institutions think “out-of-the-box” on how to develop new therapies and bring them to patients more effectively. Other good things are beginning to happen here. The private sector is moving in, and I’ve always been a big promoter of relationships with the private sector. There is a natural marriage between pharmaceutical companies and academia. Pfizer is in New York City, and Roche has also established a translational research facility here.
And I feel the need to reiterate the importance of the impact that private individuals and their foundations can have. At Weill Cornell, we have recently recruited three leading scientists. And this has been done via philanthropic resources. The scientists at all three of Tri-I TDI’s medical institutions are palpably excited about the potential for new collaborations. We can continue to build on this excitement to bring more leading researchers to New York City.
We need to come together and do a lot more to find ways to bridge the so-called “valley of death,” the longstanding and critical gap for new medical discoveries, where they do not get the focus or the funding necessary to translate them into new medicines. We need to help hasten innovations to patient care in this fiscally constrained environment. Tri-I TDI is one such effort. We also need to help small bioscience businesses and entrepreneurs with more incubator space and initiatives like Start-Up NY, which would create zones on or near some of the campuses of colleges and universities in New York State within which certain kinds of businesses could operate tax-free.
6. How can the U.S. reduce the overall cost of its healthcare system while maintaining excellence in the delivery of healthcare to its citizens?
Because of scientific advances and their application in patient care over the last two generations, we can now treat diseases like cancer and heart diseases that were the causes of early mortality to our ancestors. Lifespans have increased by 20 years, but so have our healthcare costs.
Look at Alzheimer’s disease, for instance. We are now spending $200 billion in care, with expectations for significant increases due to the demographics of an aging population. Some studies now say that 50% of people over 85 years of age will get this devastating disease. This could lead to $1 trillion in annual costs of care.
How are we as a nation going to treat chronic conditions such as this? We all know that 5% of our patients drive a disproportionate amount of our healthcare costs.
The simplest answer is, of course, prevention. We’ve got to find ways to prevent diseases. And the basic discoveries for prevention are going to be made in academic medical centers or through collaborations with the private sector like we’ve established with Tri-I TDI. Pharmaceutical companies are great at drug development, but the basic research for new drugs has for the most part come from academia.
For more information on the Tri-I TDI, visit http://weill.cornell.edu/news/releases/feature/10_01_13.shtml