At the tenth annual Discover Brigham event on Nov. 3, audiences were invited to engage in the thrill of research and discovery and think critically about the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s virtual event, hosted by the Brigham Research Institute (BRI), kicked off with remarks from the Brigham’s interim president and chief medical officer, Sunil Eappen, MD, MBA, who commended the Brigham’s research community for its 2021 accomplishments. He reminded viewers that one of the goals is for participants to learn something new, meet someone new and generate a new idea at Discover Brigham.
“Each year, Discover Brigham brings together our research community and the broader health care community to educate, inspire and innovate around collaboration,” said Eappen. “This is an opportunity to showcase the innovative medical research that happens at our institution every single day and celebrate the research community that makes it all possible.”
Fireside Chat: Lessons Learned from Pandemics
This year’s event was marked by Discover Brigham’s first virtual fireside chat, which gave viewers the opportunity to hear from two experts on infectious disease. The Brigham’s Lindsey R. Baden, MD, director of the Center for Clinical Investigation, spoke with Anne Schuchat, MD, immediate past principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons learned from previous pandemics, including the H1N1 strain of influenza in 2009.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has consumed us for the last two years, pandemics are not new,” said Baden.
Schuchat described what the CDC learned from efforts to pivot quickly and create a vaccine against H1N1 — which were hampered by the slow process of egg-based vaccine production.
“Outrunning a novel virus with old technology isn’t possible,” said Schuchat. This lesson has been heeded in 2021, with modern technologies—including mRNA-based vaccines—leading to rapid vaccine development.
Baden and Schuchat discussed the challenge of disinformation and the politicization of science, as well as public health goals at this stage of the pandemic.
“With the flu, much of our focus is on protecting our health care system. That’s where we are right now with COVID,” said Schuchat. “We’re seeing hospitals in certain parts of the country where the intensive care units are at capacity. When we think about the damage from this virus, we need to consider the impact of an overwhelmed health care system.”
They also touched upon the importance of research during a pandemic, including the critical role of clinical trials, such as the vaccine trials in which Baden and colleagues played a pivotal role.
“The research we do here and at academic medical centers across the nation are part of the energy that powers solutions and helps put them into practice,” said Baden, who added his thanks to the research community.
Posters Pop During Live Presentations
This year’s poster session included more than 90 posters, which were available for viewing in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3 and remain viewable on the poster site along with three-minute video presentations for each. On the day of Discover Brigham, attendees could ask questions of presenters during a live Roundtable or tune in for video presentations from this year’s Research Excellence Award winners. Topics ranged broadly but included projects on cancer, heart arrhythmias, the brain-heart connection, a rare, multi-system genetic disease and more.
Akshaya Chandrasekaran, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in Obstetrics and Gynecology, presented a poster on a new therapeutic for treating high-grade serous ovarian cancer.
“It was an honor to present my work alongside these brilliant scientists doing groundbreaking research,” she wrote in a tweet.
Awardees Offer Updates on Where They Are Now
The BRI has distributed more than $19 million in internal funding since 2006 to support research, innovation and discovery at the Brigham through various awards to investigators. Three award recipients joined immediate past BRI director Marc Sabatine, MD, of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, to share updates on their work and describe the return on the BRI’s investment in terms of scientific progress made and additional grants that the research team has received.
“I thank the BRI for supporting an ambitious project that would not have taken root without its support,” said Vikram Khurana, PhD, of the Department of Neurology. Khurana’s lab and collaborators received the 2018 Director’s $500,000 Transformative Award for their project, “A Multidisciplinary Program at Brigham to Stratify and Precisely Target Neurodegenerative Disease.” The project focuses on using genetic and stem-cell technologies to better stratify patients with Parkinson’s disease and related disorders for therapies. Khurana gave an update on the work, which has, among other things, led to clinical trials in patients with Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy.
Jean C. Lee, PhD, of the Division of Infectious Diseases, provided an update on her work on Staphylococcus aureus, which received a 2018 Pilot Award from the BRI. In the last three years, Lee’s lab has received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and given multiple presentations and published papers that would not have been feasible without the BRI’s funding.
Finally, Calum A. MacRae, MD, PhD, of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, gave an update on his clinical phenotype innovation pilot, which seeks to improve the understanding of disease by identifying new measurements — anything from the size and shape of the uvula to retinal images to cells from the inner lining of the cheek — that can help recognize subsets of disease and predict outcomes. MacRae was the winner of the BRI’s 2013 Shark Tank and has since secured more than $120 million in funding.
“One of the great features of this award was that we didn’t need preliminary data to apply,” said MacRae. “But the funding we received allowed us to gather that data and go on to secure external funds and collaborations.”
2021 Celebrated, 2022 Anticipated
Discover Brigham closed with remarks from Ursula Kaiser, MD, director of the BRI, and Jacqueline Slavik, PhD, MMSc, executive director of the BRI, who shared the accomplishments of Brigham inventors and innovators, Research Excellence Awardees and other members of the Brigham’s community. They acknowledged that 2021 had been a personally and professionally challenging year for the research community but expressed optimism for the year ahead.
“I hope to see all of you — hopefully in person — at Discover Brigham next year,” said Kaiser.