Throughout this continuing pandemic, I have highlighted the work of MassCPR, the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness. This regional and transnational effort has brought the expertise of hundreds of scientists, clinicians, and public health experts to confront a virus that threatens all people. Their ability — and willingness — to act together against SARS-CoV-2 has helped mitigate the more serious consequences of COVID-19 and offered us the chance to return to some semblance of normalcy. The consortium’s continuing work to better anticipate emerging pathogens will help protect us against global health threats for years to come.
The role that HMS researchers have taken in the global endeavor to fight back against this deadly virus fills me with pride. One alumnus, Dan Barouch, MD ’99, the William Bosworth Castle Professor of Medicine, professor of immunology at HMS, and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, worked tirelessly on the development of what became the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, one of three vaccines authorized by the U.S. FDA. Richard Sidman, MD ’53, the HMS Bullard Professor of Neuropathology, Emeritus, was part of a team of researchers that showed that bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria—could potentially be used to deliver COVID-19 vaccines, while Connie Cepko, the Bullard Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, used viruses to develop a rapid-test tool for SARS-CoV-2.
Many of our researchers are focused on understanding the complexities of SARS-CoV-2, just as many others are concentrating on uncovering how viruses can be used to prevent disease or even to heal. For example, in 2019, a team led by Georg Gerber, MD ’09, an HMS associate professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Pamela Silver, the Elliot T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at HMS, reported that when phages in the human gastrointestinal tract kill specific bacteria, the action causes metabolic fluctuations throughout the body, even extending to neurotransmitters. Their findings could inform work on using phages as therapeutics to manage conditions such as depression.
Another collaborative research effort has produced an adeno-associated virus (AAV) that delivers gene therapy directly to muscle tissue, a potential breakthrough treatment for genetic muscle diseases. The research, which involved Pardis Sabeti, MD ’06, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard and a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Amy Wagers, the Forst Family Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard and HMS; and Sharif Tabebordbar, PhD ’16, a former member of Sabeti’s lab who co-founded and now serves as chief scientific officer of a California-based therapeutics start-up, is serving as the basis for the development of a new AAV-based gene therapy.
These collaborations and discoveries exemplify the intense intellectual pursuit of scientific knowledge that is so deeply woven into the DNA of HMS researchers. Our scientists’ investigations of the intricacies of entities as fundamental as viruses is but one way in which they strive to enrich the body of scientific knowledge and pave the way to better health for people throughout the world.
George Q. Daley is the dean of Harvard Medical School.