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Q&A with Dean Reece

 

The formal announcement by Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, of the launch of the Brain Science Research Consortium Unit (BSRCU) heralds a bold move by the School of Medicine to foster collaborative, translational research that focuses on large-scale human diseases and disorders. The BSRCU is the first of what is expected to be the future development of several such enterprises, and discussions are under way for future Research Consortium Units with disciplinary foci that include heart and vascular science, cancer biology, and transplantation. We sat down with Dean Reece and asked him to expound on his vision of the newly established flagship RCU dedicated to Brain Research.

Q: What is your overall vision for the School of Medicine Research Consortium Units (RCUs), and why was an RCU for brain science selected to be the first?

A: We have an intensive research program at the School of Medicine. However, I am always asking the leadership team and myself, what are we doing now that we could be doing better? It became clear that we needed to make a deliberate effort to promote and accelerate innovation and discovery; simply wishing for that to happen was not going to work.

The idea for the RCUs came around the same time that we were looking to create a seven-year strategic vision plan, named Vision 2020, for the School of Medicine’s mission areas: education, research, clinical care, and finance and philanthropy. Vision 2020 for research had an overarching goal to accelerate the pace and scope of innovation and discovery in medicine through our Accelerating Innovation and Discovery in Medicine initiative. A major component of the ACCEL-Med engine involves taking on the most complicated and vexing disorders that have been difficult to surmount. To achieve our goals of tackling “big science” research questions, we chose to leverage our senior (and seasoned) faculty, Chairs and Directors--the best and brightest that we have--and put them together in a consortial framework, thereby harnessing their incredible talents more easily.

To answer the question of, “why the brain first?” in recent years, neuroscience has become an area of great interest particularly with President Obama’s brain mapping initiative project, the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative, and an increased focus on brain research. These are signs of a contemporary brain science buzz. For the School of Medicine, another impetus for starting an RCU with a brain focus is that many of the most complicated medical disorders we face today stem from a dysfunction in the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and addiction. These are all brain diseases and disorders. We still do not understand normal brain function, let alone disordered states.

President John F. Kennedy, when asked to comment on why he wanted the United States to go to the moon, answered, “I want to go, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” We are taking on the hardest challenge, the human brain, because it is what we should be doing. I have extraordinary pride and confidence in the quality of our scientists, and we have a “deep bench” in terms of neuroscience research, so leveraging their exceptional talents through the Consortium and this “big science” approach made perfect sense to me.

Q: Where do you hope this multidisciplinary effort will take the participating basic and clinical departments (in terms of advancing science, obtaining funding, and generating new collaborations)?‌

A:My dream for the RCUs is to witness a paradigm shift, one that we lead, in how we approach complex research questions. With ACCEL-Med, we are taking a bold, strategic, unprecedented approach to advancing discovery-based medicine. Our unique tactic is one of the reasons that the NIH Director, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, attended our inaugural Festival of Science and gave the keynote address to officially kick off of the ACCEL-Med initiative. He was excited to see a university that is not succumbing to the vicissitudes of Washington. We need this energy and enthusiasm about science to continue, where faculty sees complex research and medical problems as something to embrace, and do so in a collaborative way. I strongly encourage our basic and clinical faculty to engage in face-to-face, hand-in-hand research. This can only change when we change the culture.

We have not previously embraced “big science” as our mountain to climb. In the past, our collective efforts were applied to smaller projects. Now, I want us to focus our efforts around large and complex goals, known in some circles as the “BHAGs,” the “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.” These are precisely the types of goals we should be embracing, the befuddling “giants” of neuroscience. We have the depth, the breadth, and the stamina, so we should not be timid, but success will come with time. I do not expect things to change overnight, but with the new culture shift, I expect to see deeper, broader levels of research and, with that, extraordinary levels of federal funding will follow.

“ We are taking on the hardest challenge, the human brain, because it is what we should be doing. ”

Q: How do you see the BSRCU contributing to the current knowledge of the human brain? What areas of strength does the SOM have in this field?

A: We have a unique opportunity to be an international leader in many areas of brain science. We have a head start in the sense that we already have many strong groups at the School of Medicine conducting brain research. For example, the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, an organized research center housed within the Department of Psychiatry, is one of the premiere leaders in research on neuroimaging and biomolecular studies of the schizophrenic brain. Another strength lies in the body of work being conducted in our school on the neurobiology of the addicted brain. We also have many pockets of investigation in brain sciences, from investigations into the brain circuitry, to studies of brain injury, to explorations of neuropharmacological agents. Now the goal is to bring all of these various areas together to look towards mega-project goals, which could possibly lead to the development of more unified hypotheses about neurological disorders. As an example, many brain disorders may stem from a basis of neuroinflammation. By bringing our brain science investigators together under the Consortium, we have a wonderful and unique opportunity to explore this idea of neuroinflammation and to identify other unifying hypotheses across diseases and disorders.

...we are taking a bold, strategic, unprecedented approach to advancing discovery-based medicine.

Q: What do you envision as the most impactful discovery or finding that may come from the BSRCU? Would this be an answer to a basic science question? A new therapeutic approach? What impact might the BSRCU research have, if any, on policy?

A: I expect that the Brain Science Research Consortium Unit will impact the field on various levels. I could envision a clinical trials impact, a basic science impact, a behavioral impact, and a policy impact. For example, imagine how powerful it would be if we understood addiction at the molecular level. We could use this information to create a biological map of the addicted brain, and pinpoint potential targets for therapeutic approaches. Using brain imaging, we could then visualize the addicted brain and determine if a specific intervention, based on our molecular map, changed how the brain looked on the macro level. These discoveries made about the addicted brain could lead to dramatic shifts in how we treat and rehabilitate individuals with substance or stimulus addictions, but also could be among the first research areas to influence policy changes in how we view criminal offenders. Therefore, we need multi-disciplinary groups like the Brain Science Research Consortium Unit to translate basic science findings into clinical approaches that could significantly improve our understanding of disorders or aberrations, and allow us to ask “what really happens?” and develop effective treatments and cures.