BY DAVID BALTIMORE
Fifteen years ago, when The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation was getting its start, the world stood on the cusp of a revolution in scientific and medical research. The Human Genome Project, a collaborative effort by 20 laboratories and hundreds of scientists worldwide to sequence the stuff that makes us who we are, published the first full drafts of our genetic material. It was the culmination of a half century’s work— starting with the discovery of DNA’s structure—to transform biology from a science dependent on microscopic observation to a science of genes and proteins, the smallest but most fundamental pieces of the puzzle of life. The answers to essential human questions—who we are, why we are different from one another, why we get sick, why we die, how we can live better lives—were still far from being answered. But, at that moment, they appeared in much sharper focus than ever before.
If there ever was an opportune time to jump-start a science, it was the early years of this century. Eli and Edye Broad saw the opportunity represented by what we now call genomic science, started supporting it, and have remained vanguard supporters of this scientific endeavor in the years since.
Since 2000, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has invested more than $800 million into the pursuit of scientific and medical research. The greatest proportion of that investment has gone to the Broad Institute, headed by Eric Lander, who led the Human Genome Project. Like all the scientific knowledge it builds upon, the Broad Institute began as an experiment. Eric Lander wanted to see what would happen if he put the smartest scientists from a variety of disciplines (biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and more) together in a new kind of laboratory, one that departed from the traditional university structure to make more room for collaboration. He found these great minds in the legendary institutions of Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, both academic and medical. Eli Broad helped Eric convince Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work closely together.
Both men succeeded beyond what they could have hoped back in 2001, when I first introduced them. Back then, Eli and Edye were curious about the work of scientists studying inflammatory bowel disease, a debilitating gastrointestinal disorder that afflicted one of their sons. They wanted to start a small medical research program into the disease, funding small start-up grants into innovative research. They asked me for a few names of smart researchers, and Eric Lander was at the top of my list because he was investigating the disease from the fundamental, genetic point of view. Fortunately for all of us, Eric had other ideas in mind that went far beyond pursuing research in his own lab. Eli and Edye went on to fund the Broad Medical Research program, investing more than $43 million to advance research into the cause, treatment and cure of inflammatory bowel disease. The program continues today, run by the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.
Thanks to the vision and leadership of Eli, Edye and Eric, the Broad Institute has become a community of 2,500 biologists, chemists, engineers, computer scientists and other talented researchers from a variety of disciplines and affiliated with the top institutions in the world—Massachusetts General Hospital, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, MIT and Harvard. So far, they have authored more than 3,800 publications and are studying cancer, psychiatric disorders, diabetes, heart disease and infectious disease, among other subjects. They have shared their methods, tools and enormous data sets with the global scientific community, speeding up the process of discovery worldwide. Uniting all these efforts are a series of common goals: to assemble a complete picture of the molecular basis of life, to uncover the molecular basis of disease, to discover the mutations that characterize particular cancers as a guide to treatment, and ultimately to revolutionize the process of developing medical treatments. In only the past few years, the Broad Institute has helped scientists around the world better understand the mutations of the Ebola virus, and its researchers have developed a technology that can easily edit genomes, discovered a “pre-cancerous” state in human blood and advanced the study of schizophrenia.
The Broad Institute isn’t Eli and Edye’s only legacy in scientific and medical research. As they worked to launch the Broad Institute in the early 2000s, Eli and Edye were troubled, like many Americans and particularly like those in the scientific community, about the controversy surrounding stem cell research. Some resistance had been expected—stem cell research often uses biological material derived from embryos—but it remains shocking to me that the President of the United States effectively halted an entire field of scientific inquiry, one that held the promise of revealing treatments to devastating diseases. Californians, to their credit, passed by a wide margin a proposition to support stem cell research in their state with a $3 billion bond issue.
Once again, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation was ready to invest at an essential moment. Giving a total of $75 million to UCLA, UC San Francisco and USC, the foundation helped build the centers where stem cell research would take place, institutions that would not have been eligible for federal funding. It was another remarkable example of institution building by the Broad family.
In only a few years since their founding, the three stem cell centers at these universities have made impressive advances in Lou Gehrig’s disease, studying why we age and, most significantly, in curing “bubble baby disease.” UCLA researchers were able to successfully treat 23 babies with the ailment. Ten years after Californians passed their stem cell proposition, six years after the partial lifting of the federal ban, it’s clear that most Americans support stem cell research for its vast potential to improve human life.
Eli and Edye have partnered with key figures and institutions representing the most forward-looking elements of the scientific community. Their embrace of new ideas has come early, allowing them to be catalytic in their philanthropy. Like scientists, Eli and Edye are not driven by dogma. Rather, they and their foundation pursue one thing: creative results. They live, like we scientists do, for the thrill of the experiment, the surprise of the discovery, and that wonderful feeling of knowing that they put something new and good into the world.
David Baltimore is a Nobel Laureate, president emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology and a member of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation Board of Governors.