Pan-Harvard Program Will Catalyze Clinical Research

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Today the Harvard Catalyst goes live. The Harvard Catalyst is a pan-University collaborative effort committed to harnessing the human, technological, and fiscal resources of Harvard and its academic healthcare centers (AHCs) to reduce the burden of human illness. Uniting to achieve this goal are Harvard’s 10 schools and its 18 independent AHCs.

This is an unprecedented moment in the history of these institutions. Unlike many other initiatives, all members of the Harvard faculty and students — regardless of their institutional affiliations — have access to the resources of the Harvard Catalyst.

Now these resources are described and the first competition for pilot grants is announced at . The deadline for applications is Oct. 15.

On May 19, Harvard received a five-year Clinical and Translational Science Award from the National Institutes of Health for $117.5 million, which is supplemented by an additional $75 million provided by the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee (HUSEC), Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the AHCs, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital Boston, Dana–Farber Cancer Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital.


This NIH grant, which established the Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center, is administered through HMS and forms the platform upon which the Harvard Catalyst is built. We believe that the key elements for success already exist at Harvard, including the intellectual force, technologies, and clinical expertise necessary to reduce the burden of human illness. What is missing is a systematic way for investigators from disparate disciplines and institutions to find each other and form teams, to gain open access to tools and technologies, and to obtain seed funding to embark upon new areas of investigation. This demands a systematic effort to remove the barriers and obstacles to cross-institutional collaboration. A catalyst lowers the barriers to reaction and thus speeds a reaction that would normally have occurred at a much slower rate. Speeding the reduction of human illness is the only function of the Harvard Catalyst.

How will the Harvard Catalyst achieve its mission?

Simply stated, it will bring faculty, postdoctoral fellows, clinical trainees, and graduate students from across the University together to attack human illness.

There is great enthusiasm among basic scientists—including biologists, engineers, chemists, and physicists—for new collaborative efforts to decipher the mechanisms of human disease, develop new diagnostics, and develop new strategies and agents to treat or prevent human illness. The barriers they face include a lack of understanding of diseases, inability to identify the most important scientific questions, and lack of access to clinical collaborators. Likewise, researchers who conduct studies on individual patients or populations are eager to bring their most pressing clinical questions to the laboratory, but often do not know how to find scientific partners who would be interested and willing to collaborate.

Once investigators find each other, they need access to relevant technologies; to human material; to patients and normal subjects; to expert help in areas such as biostatistics, biomedical informatics, genetics, and imaging; and to pilot funds to catalyze high-risk, high-impact projects. In addition, we need to build on existing strengths at Harvard to nurture a new culture of academic–community partnership that will increase the relevance of Harvard’s research to the needs of the region. Engaging academe with community members, practitioners, and healthcare delivery systems will greatly inform the priorities, conduct, and dissemination of translational research. Many of these new challenges and opportunities will require collaboration with our colleagues in the law, business, government, divinity, and education schools.

Success is not a specific output but a change in the structure of our community: when investigators from many institutions come together to collaborate on developing a new diagnostic or a novel approach to treatment or prevention, that is a success.