Biomedical breakthroughs at the Brown Institute for Translational Science

Brown University is pursuing a strategic vision to ensure that the most promising advances in basic biomedical research become new treatments for patients.

Scientists working in Jack Elias lab
Clinically relevant research: Min-Jong Kang, left, Dean Jack A. Elias, and Chun Geun Lee are members in a broader collaboration of translational science-focused researchers called Brown Investigators of Respiratory Diseases, or BIRDs. Michael Cohea/Brown University

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In fall 2015, Dr. Jack A. Elias unveiled a strategic plan for Brown University’s Division of Biology and Medicine that promised to catalyze an unprecedented level of collaborative, innovative, patient-centered biomedical research at the University. The Brown Institute for Translational Science stood as its cornerstone.

BITS, as the institute is now known, focuses on translational science — the practice of ensuring that breakthroughs in basic research are advanced to the point where they can make a meaningful medical difference for patients, and that urgent scientific questions identified in the clinic or among patient populations become research priorities in the lab.

“Translation-focused scientists play a major role in ensuring that new concepts of science are appropriately focused on the diseases that cause morbidity and mortality,” Elias said. “We live in an amazing time in terms of what we can do in biology.”

Supporting efforts to build teams of translation-focused scientists, a new gift from The Warren Alpert Foundation will create the first endowed professorship for the institute. Five million dollars will establish the Warren Alpert Professorship in BITS as part of a $27 million gift to Brown.

Through new faculty recruiting, research grants, equipment purchases, fellowships and other programs, BITS is working toward building and enabling broad-based collaborations, which Elias calls “horizontally integrated research and education teams,” to tackle specific and urgent problems in health care.

Initially, the institute is focused on five areas of study in which Brown’s current faculty members excel: aging; genetics, genomics and personalized medicine; maternal child and developmental health; musculoskeletal and motion sciences; and respiratory diseases. In addition, the institute will support cutting-edge, rapidly evolving areas of research such as the human microbiome.

An early example is a team called the Brown Investigators of Respiratory Diseases, or BIRDs. This group of researchers — which includes physicians, molecular biologists, immunologists and others — has formed several education and research collaborations around a common interest in lung diseases including pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma and lung cancer.

To realize the strategic plan, BITS works alongside two other key entities in the Division of Biology and Medicine: The Brown Center for Biomedical Informatics and Brown Biomedical Innovations Inc.

The Brown Center for Biomedical Informatics, established earlier in 2015, is led by Professors Indra Neil Sarkar and Elizabeth Chen. Their mission is to develop, deploy and evaluate computational and data science approaches to best use biomedical and health data for improving patient care.

Brown Biomedical Innovations Inc., meanwhile, concentrates resources on bridging a common gap between academic research and patient care by accelerating the commercialization potential of promising discoveries to bring them to the marketplace.

BITS will continue to grow as fundraising through the $3 billion BrownTogether comprehensive campaign moves into its second year.

“Funding translation-focused researchers will ensure that decades from now we have effective treatments for diseases that we do not have treatments for right now,” Elias said.