Dr. Mukesh K. Jain: “We have a responsibility to positively impact the health of our community.”

A physician-scientist and the eighth dean of medicine and biology at Brown, Jain shared insights on how the University’s biomedical community can improve human health and fuel economic growth in Rhode Island and beyond.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As dean of Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, Dr. Mukesh K. Jain wears many hats. And many coats, too — from sport coats as he explores new collaborations with Rhode Island’s health systems to white lab coats as he conducts research in his lab at Sidney E. Frank Hall on genetic factors that regulate the immune and metabolic systems.

An accomplished physician-scientist, Jain is a champion for biomedical research and an academic leader who spent much of his career aligning clinical, academic and research missions between a major teaching hospital and medical school in Cleveland. Since arriving in Providence in March 2022, he’s been dressing that part at Brown in a number of new and intersecting roles.

Jain is the leader of Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine, which encompasses the medical school, four biological science departments, 14 clinical departments, two hybrid departments and a dozen centers and institutes. He also holds the additional role of senior vice president for health affairs, overseeing initiatives that involve Brown faculty and hospital partners; leading arrangements regarding clinical, research and teaching activities; and providing strategic vision for the life sciences at Brown and in collaboration with hospital partners to advance Rhode Island as a center for biotech research and innovation.

As a physician, researcher, educator and academic leader, Jain is able to take a big-picture view of how medical education, basic research, health care and biomedical innovation fit together to benefit the community.

“Simply put, we want Rhode Island to be a place where cutting-edge research is happening in a way that informs the delivery of the most advanced therapies to patients, attracts outstanding researchers and students, garners interest from biotech and biopharma partners and advances the health and economic vibrancy of the local community in a kind of positive feed-forward loop,” Jain said. “That’s already starting to happen, and we are going to build upon it even further.”

On the anniversary of his start at Brown, Jain shared takeaways from his first year and his plans for the future.

Q: Just after your arrival, you helped kick off the University’s 50 Years of Medicine celebration. What have you learned about the history of medical education at Brown that has impacted the way you’ll think about stewarding medical education for the years to come?

There were two things that I thought were especially interesting about the founding of the medical school. One is that when announcing the inaugural Special Program in Basic Medical Sciences in 1963, then-president of Brown Barnaby Keeney talked about how our society has two great medical needs: People who discover new knowledge, and people who apply that new knowledge to help others. The other was that when the program officially became a medical school, the Brown Corporation had a really interesting perspective: they wanted to integrate social sciences and humanism into medicine. In 1972, that was very forward-thinking.

When I look at the history of the school, there's a scientific component to it — making and applying new discoveries. We've trained multiple generations of doctors, many of whom have gone on to do amazing things at national and international levels. We have developed amazing educational programs that beautifully integrate research, science and humanism — for example, the Program in Liberal Medical Education. And as we look at where we are now and where we’re going, we're continuing along the very same lines. The science that we're doing now is cutting-edge with the promise of impact at the highest levels. The investments that the University is making in life sciences are remarkable and we have the privilege of being the tip of the spear in the institution’s aspiration to augment research for impact. And we realize today, more than ever before, as we emerge from the pandemic, how important the humanistic qualities of a physician are to the care of a patient. So we’re continuing to build on those original values, but taking it up several levels moving forward.

Q: A new aligned research collaboration between Brown, Lifespan and Care New England aims to create a unified approach to conducting health and medical research. What are some of the benefits of the ARC?

First, by reducing barriers to collaboration, we will allow all of our faculty to be more productive in terms of grants and publications and, perhaps most critically, allow them to more easily translate their discoveries from bench to bedside and thereby impact on human health.

Second, it will help us recruit the best and brightest faculty, trainees and staff. Our proactive effort to integrate across the entire continuum of research — from the petri dish in the laboratory to patients who are in the hospital to studies at the population level within Rhode Island — is really uncommon nationally and will attract individuals committed to engaging in translational research to address unmet medical challenges.

Third, research excellence promotes clinical excellence, as it provides patients access to advanced therapies and state-of-the-art interventions. We have pockets of excellence today, but we want to amplify these so that patients in Rhode Island stay in Rhode Island, and maybe we even pull in patients from outside the state.

Finally, there’s the impact on the economic vibrancy of our community. If you are in biotech or biopharma, you want to be where great discoveries are being made, where there’s access to patient data, the ability to test new therapies or diagnostics in patients and evaluate efficacy at a population level. This collaboration will help facilitate such efforts for Rhode Island.

I learned after arriving at Brown that the first effort to align research in this way across Brown and the state’s major health care systems occurred in 1997, so it’s pretty momentous that we were able to bring this partnership to fruition in less than a year. Our first meeting with the new CEOs of Lifespan and Care New England and other key leaders within the biomedical community was in early February. And at our next meeting in March, we’ll dig into financial and operational issues. I anticipate fully operationalizing this plan will take much of 2023.  

Q: In October, Brown launched a new operational plan to grow its research enterprise. Among the biomedical priorities for the University are addressing aging and aging-related diseases; brain diseases; cancer; international health and vaccine development; and expanding RNA biology efforts at Brown. How were these priorities developed?

We zeroed in on emerging and existing strengths. To start, we have one of the nation’s premier Centers on the Biology of Aging. Members of this center have made foundational discoveries of pathways involved in aging that appear in organisms all the way from fruit flies to humans. In addition to making these impactful discoveries, these colleagues have developed therapeutics, launched companies and even entered early-phase clinical trials for patients with dementia.

We have a rapidly growing program in cancer made possible by a transformative gift from Pablo and Almudena Legorreta. Thanks to their generous support, the Legorreta Cancer Center has recruited a number of fabulous scientists. In partnership with colleagues at both health systems, we are charting a course to gain official designation by the National Cancer Institute.

In brain health, we have an incredibly deep bench studying brain disorders across the continuum of life, from neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders to neurodegenerative conditions like dementia. Importantly these strengths span from basic neuroscience to clinical and population research of patients afflicted with various brain disorders.

As for international health, we have an amazing group of investigators that do what I like to call the field-to-lab-to-field research. They're out in the field assessing patients — say, in Africa or the Philippines — and studying crippling diseases like malaria. These investigators identify unmet medical challenges faced by patients, return to the laboratory to gain insights, and on the basis of these discoveries, they develop interventions, diagnostics, therapeutics and devices to help the most marginalized among us. I will add that this kind of work is highly consonant with Brown’s ethos of social impact.

And then we have a growing focus on RNA biology.

Q: Why is RNA biology particularly exciting?

DNA and RNA control biological information critical for life. Several decades ago, the world collaborated on sequencing DNA as part of the Human Genome Project. This effort allowed us, for example, to identify genetic diseases and to develop therapies for devastating conditions. About a year and a half ago, a group of scientists made a call to action to sequence RNA. I have had the pleasure and privilege of being involved in the effort with a small group of national thought leaders.

To make a long story short: There is a lot of momentum now led by these scientists, including some of us at Brown, to undertake the second human sequencing project focused on RNA. This effort, termed the human RNome project, has garnered attention from the highest levels of this nation such as the three national academies of science, engineering and medicine. A white paper is now being developed that will, by the end of this year, provide a roadmap that will be shared with federal leaders to fund the effort. Of note, this work on the roadmap is being supported by none other than The Warren Alpert Foundation of Rhode Island. The foundation is deeply committed to science and to Brown as evidenced by their generous support that led to naming our school the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

We want Rhode Island to be a place where cutting-edge research is happening in a way that informs the delivery of the most advanced therapies to patients, attracts outstanding researchers and students, garners interest from biotech and biopharma partners, and advances the health and economic vibrancy of the local community in a kind of positive feed-forward loop. That’s already starting to happen, and we are going to build upon it even further.

Mukesh K. Jain, M.D. Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences, Brown University
Mukesh Jain portrait

The human RNome project is truly a transformative opportunity, one that promises to enormously enhance our ability to develop novel diagnostics and therapeutics for diseases that still burden society. Brown is investing heavily in strengthening our RNA research capabilities, to establish this as a signature program for the University.  

Q: Brown is investing in research in other ways, too — for example, with a new integrated life sciences building being planned for Providence’s Jewelry District. Can you speak about the benefits, in the potential to impact human health, and also the local economy?

The building will be enormously impactful for the community. It will allow us to recruit new faculty and trainees who, with colleagues already here, seek to illuminate the inner workings of nature that will provide a foundation for treating some of the great health challenges of today. It will become a center for the development of science that will attract biotech and biopharma companies. And we are doing the work both within the University as well as with partners in government and other organizations to make it more inviting for biotech and biopharma to be here. We also look forward to partnering with colleagues at local colleges and universities to develop training programs for college students who want to get into the STEM workforce. All of that has an amplification effect on workforce development, and there are obvious implications for the economic vibrancy of the community. Look at Kendall Square, Silicon Valley, Raleigh-Durham — all areas benefiting from research in the life sciences.

Q: Research, education and clinical care have long been part of the mission of the Division of Biology and Medicine. Since coming to Brown, you have added a fourth pillar: community engagement. What is the division doing to impact Providence and Rhode Island communities?

We have a responsibility as a university, as a medical school, and as a biomedical ecosystem, to positively impact the health of our community. We’ve made community engagement part of the official mission of the Warren Alpert Medical School. We have recruited Dr. Patricia Poitevien, a passionate and effective leader, as the medical school’s inaugural senior associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion to oversee our community effort. Many of our faculty are clinicians who serve the community as part of their work. And a lot of our effort has centered around the intersection of health and education. We want the health workforce that we train to reflect the community that they serve.

That's really important, because it's well-appreciated that patients follow the advice of health care workers with whom they can identify. We now have pathways programs in place for local high school and college students to help develop their interest in health careers. This fall, we held a community engagement event with the founder of the organization Black Men in White Coats to help local students, from elementary to undergraduate level, as well as their parents, get a better sense of the process and pathway to a career in medicine. Finally, one of the programs that we're most proud of is something called SMART Plus. Created in partnership with the medical school, the Central Falls School District and the Ginn Group Collaborative, with funding from The Warren Alpert Foundation, this initiative is designed to provide health services as well as inspiration and mentorship to middle schoolers. Our medical students care deeply about delivering care to communities in need, and with this program, students in Calcutt Middle School are able to have health services provided right at school, which could save the students and their families a time-consuming trip to the doctor’s office.

Q: After holding town hall meetings, attending events and getting to know students at the Warren Alpert Medical school, what are your impressions?

They are very interested in community engagement, being socially conscious and — consistent with the ethos of Brown — having a meaningful and enduring societal impact. They're committed to excellence in science, and I’m happy to see so many of them engage in research activities. And finally, they are not shy about sharing their opinions, which is terrific.

Q: You and your family lived in Ohio for 16 years before coming to the East Coast. What are you enjoying most about living and working in Rhode Island?

Providence is a wonderful city — compact yet beautiful, artistic and intellectual. And I love the creativity of the restaurants here, where I like to get people together to talk about life, our aspirations and our futures over great food and interesting drinks.