Eric Lander. Illustration by Quickhoney.
In order to decode the human genome, Eric Lander had to bring together scientists from diverse fields, backgrounds, and specialties. “We were assembling teams that were taking on a task bigger than any of us,” says Lander, who was then the director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research and the flagship team of the Human Genome Project. As the end of the sequencing came into view, the scientists started looking toward the future. “We didn’t want to lose the community that had been born of the Human Genome Project,” he says.
And so, Lander helped build the Broad Institute, one of the world’s leading centers for research in genomics and medicine. Launched in 2003 as a joint venture between MIT and Harvard, the Broad was created to bring scientists from different institutions together to enable endeavors in “big science” — the human genome projects of the coming decades.
Lander became the founding director of the Broad Institute and the teams that had worked on the human genome became its nucleus. Today, the institute has more than 100 affiliated researchers spread out over the city of Boston and its labs. Once a week, all the scientists whose work touches on a given topic — cancer genomics, for instance — congregate at the Broad to discuss their current research. This structure allows them to explore opportunities to collaborate on future projects no single scientist could accomplish alone.
The Broad is leading the way, for example, on an $18 million project that will develop tools for researchers whose work involves gene silencing. The effort involves creating 150,000 unique plasmids, each of which contains an RNA sequence that can be used to inhibit specific genes.
The scientists who work at the Broad Institute “chase after really hard and really important problems in biology and medicine,” says Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Collins calls Lander “the leading intellect of the genomic era,” and says many other research groups are considering replicating the structure of the Broad. “Its greatest influence,” he says, “will probably be the young scientists who train there, who will never be satisfied with the old way of doing things.”
Originally published November 15, 2007