As Brown’s oldest professional school, The Warren Alpert Medical School has an obligation to help fulfill the University’s mission to serve local, national, and global communities. With a renewed focus on life-saving research, Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine (BioMed) has crystallized its focus areas—cancer, brain science, immunity, infectious disease, aging, and RNA—and is poised to take these programs to greater heights.
Research on the Rise
Brown’s vision for collaborative research and discovery is working, and it’s improving the health of both individuals and populations.
Dean Jain shares how Brown’s investment in collaborative research in programs like cancer, aging, and RNA will inspire innovation and improve health.
Bringing our A game
According to Mukesh K. Jain, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of medicine and biological sciences at Brown, the vision for BioMed over the next year is to amplify existing strengths and make Brown truly distinctive at a national level. Jain offers a few key reasons why the University is building a strong reputation in life sciences research, and that list starts with outstanding faculty.
Thanks to the generosity of donors through the BrownTogether campaign, the University is making great progress with faculty recruitment into the division’s focus areas. Ted Huey came to Brown from Columbia University to lead the memory and aging program. Sendurai Mani was recruited from the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas to develop a new program at Brown in pancreatic cancer—one of the deadliest varieties of the disease. And Juan Alfonzo, a national leader in RNA science, has come to Brown from The Ohio State University to lead Brown’s new RNA center.
BioMed’s success is also fueled by the interest of students in conducting research in these focus areas. As an academic institution, says Jain, Brown disseminates knowledge, but it also creates new knowledge. “We want our students to benefit from both aspects. That includes fostering their understanding of where we are today and arming them with the tools they will need to be successful in the future.” Over 400 undergraduates are doing research in BioMed laboratories and more than 300 concentrate in the life sciences. Their involvement expands Brown’s educational mission in parallel with its growing research mission.
Moving the needle
Fostering an environment where disciplines mix and inform one another is essential for discovery, and that is another way BioMed stands out. “We have strengths across the continuum of life,” says Jain. This fluency is one of the things that sets research at Brown apart.
In brain science, for example, Brown covers a broad spectrum of conditions, from autism to Alzheimer’s, and research projects in these areas feed off of each other and fuel collaboration. In cancer, fundamental aspects of diagnostics and therapeutics cross different boundaries too. Brown researchers have discovered that gastrointestinal or genitourinary cancers can impact brain cancers, and that the immune system has an enormous impact on all different types of cancers. One of the biggest trends in cancer therapeutics right now is leveraging the immune system to attack the cancer, which has inspired Brown to continue building its strength in immunity research.
We want to have impact, and we do that through discovery, innovation, and education. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we are laser focused to achieve our mission.
Brown’s Center on the Biology of Aging seeks to identify and understand the fundamental mechanisms of aging in order to apply that knowledge to all age-related diseases, from cancer to dementia to cardiovascular disease. Likewise, the infectious disease department is working to understand some of the enormous health issues that lie outside our borders but affect humanity at an overarching level. Brown investigators go where the challenge is (Africa or the Philippines), observe patients, and come back armed with the knowledge to develop new scientific insights, diagnostics, and therapeutics that can be tested in the field. This field-to-lab research is a virtuous cycle that can have a meaningful impact on treating devastating diseases like malaria and schistosomiasis.
“You can develop new diagnostics and therapeutics, but you have to assess them in patients, and the patients are in the hospitals,” says Jain. This is why Brown is intent on strengthening the nexus of its Medical School, basic science research, and its clinical enterprise.
With more than 180 faculty members from 23 academic and clinical departments, Brown has a long history of leadership in the field of brain sciences. This expertise is needed now more than ever, with a large and increasing burden of neurological disorders in the United States. Nearly one in 50 people live with paralysis; one in six adults live with mental illness; and by 2050, nearly 14 million Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s disease.
The pioneering work happening at Brown is driving discovery that promises to improve the quality of life for people affected by brain disorders and injury. Faculty and students work together to develop cures for neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s, predict who is most at risk for psychiatric illness or suicide, devise better treatments for chronic pain or depression, and provide a better understanding of addiction. “Brown has amazing multidisciplinary research going on,’ says Ted Huey, professor of psychiatry and human behavior. “I think it is growing and developing as much, if not more than any other program in the country.”
As Brown advances discovery in areas where it has built great strength already, it is also amassing expertise in new areas of biology that will intersect and provide information about diagnostics and therapeutics that touch all the focus areas. Leading that pack is an emphasis on RNA.
RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a molecule that is present in the majority of living organisms and viruses. There is a strong sense within the biotech/biopharmaceutical community that the next great wave of diagnostics and therapeutics will be in this space. Many people have heard of “messenger” or mRNA because it was used in the COVID vaccine, but there are at least another half dozen RNAs that carry out all kinds of functions in the body and in cells—functions that aren’t yet understood. RNA has enormous potential to impact human health over the next several decades, and Brown is making a concentrated effort to lead the way forward in this area.
Room to grow
BioMed’s star is rising, and whether a program is already established or new, it is welcoming new faculty, new ideas, and new collaborative efforts.
“We’re on a journey,” says Jain. “We have great clinical care; we have great science; and we’ve made great progress on the new Integrated Life Sciences Building which will bring so much of our good work together.” Brown plans to break ground on that project in a year, which will be a huge milestone. Another key milestone will be to operationalize the Brown Innovation Research Collaborative for Health (BIRCH)—a partnership between Brown (the Medical School and the School of Public Health) and our two health system partners (Lifespan and Care New England) to integrate research under one life sciences hub.
Within all this activity, innovation is a key component. The Medical School, with the support of Brown’s new provost, Frank J. Doyle, recently developed an innovation roadmap that is an extension of the University’s plan to expand the research enterprise. “We want to have impact,” says Jain, “and we do that through discovery, innovation, and education. There's a lot of work to be done, and we are laser focused to achieve our mission.”
Collaboration among faculty, students, and community partners is essential to these efforts. This importance will be obvious in the Integrated Life Sciences Building, where signature research programs that address some of the most pressing needs that humanity faces today will flourish through the practice of team science. And the building’s Jewelry District location will provide students an opportunity to engage in research in proximity to Brown’s clinical researchers. Within BioMed, the goal is to inspire students to serve as role models and equip them with the skills to advance their own ideas in science for impact.