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Powered by federal research dollars, Harvard is helping to boost the local economy

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Kris Snibbe/Harvard file photo

By The Harvard Gazette

Federal research funding is a key driver for the advances in scientific knowledge that deepen our understanding of intractable diseases, hasten new treatments, and improve our daily lives.

Allon Klein, associate professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), used federal money to help propel a breakthrough in how researchers analyze cells in the body. His newly developed device lets researchers analyze single cells in large numbers, helping them understand diseases and where to intervene.

“It’s rare that a disease only affects a single cell type, and a good example of that is cancer, where inside a tumor there is much more than just the cancer cells themselves,” Klein said. “They would not be able to survive without being fed from blood vessels, and they interact with immune cells, and with cells that lay down the matrix on which tumors grow.

“We can already see tremendous uptake of single-cell technologies in disease research across both academic and pharmaceutical research,” he said, “I expect that in the coming years we will find these methods central to identifying new therapeutic targets, developing biomarkers that predict which patients will respond to therapies, and identifying side effects of trial therapies.”

The device, which he created with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been licensed to private industry, where it can potentially be brought to market and help patients.

Groundbreaking work by Klein and other researchers across Harvard attracts hundreds of millions of research dollars to campus, and in turn, to Massachusetts. This means that federal funding plays a critical role in advancing impactful discoveries and in stimulating the regional economy.

“The Harvard community learns, teaches, and innovates in Massachusetts, harnessing the power of new ideas and discovery to solve challenging problems and contribute to the well-being of our communities,” said Harvard President Larry Bacow. “We are proud of our strong connections to Massachusetts and the cities Harvard calls home.”

According to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, federal research funding is a critical building block in Massachusetts’ knowledge-based economy. Each dollar invested in research at medical schools and teaching hospitals generates $2.60 in economic activity.

Last year, for example, Harvard University attracted more than $800 million in research funding, with 70 percent coming from the federal government. This funding supported hundreds of millions in salaries and wages for Massachusetts residents, as well as purchases from local businesses, with more than $21 million directed to companies in Harvard’s host communities of Boston and Cambridge.

Beyond the University’s research enterprise, Harvard’s 14 affiliated teaching hospitals — such as Boston’s Children Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — attracted additional funding, helping keep Massachusetts at the forefront of cutting-edge health care.

“This funding grows our economy and the investment of research dollars can be seen throughout Greater Boston and the commonwealth through new companies that generate innovation and sustain high-paying jobs,” said James Rooney, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. “Institutions like Harvard University are invaluable anchors for attracting this kind of investment.”

Graphic showing impact Harvard has on local economy.

Graphic by Dan Hassett-Salley/Harvard Staff

In addition to external funding, the University invests institutional resources to help translate researchers’ innovations into products and services that benefit the public good. For example, as of July 2019, more than $19 million in grants had been awarded to 108 projects through the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator. These projects, in turn, attracted an additional $36 million in industry-sponsored research funding and helped launch new Massachusetts-based companies such as Elevian, FogPharma, Macrolide Pharmaceuticals, Magenta Therapeutics, Mellitus, and Nocion Therapeutics, to name a few. In return, these companies attract venture capital, further adding to medical discoveries and stimulating the state’s life-sciences ecosystem.

For Junying Yuan, Elizabeth D. Hay Professor of Cell Biology at HMS, funding from the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator helped pave the way for her breakthrough work on nerve cell damage — critical for the understanding and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS — to reach the vital human clinical trial phase.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Innovation Labs in Allston have helped launch more than 1,600 ventures in the past 10 years, providing valuable incubation space and advising to entrepreneurs across social enterprise, tech, and health care.

To learn more, read the recently released annual report, Facts & Impact: Harvard and the Massachusetts Economy, which describes more ways in which Harvard contributes to the commonwealth.

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)