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The Podium

Innovation at the research institutes

More than 900 independent, not-for-profit research institutes work across the United States to support research and technological innovation and training in a wide range of sciences. In Massachusetts, a state widely considered one of the most important, if not leading, research hubs anywhere in the world, there are only seven independent research institutes: Broad Institute, Forsyth Institute and Whitehead Institute in Cambridge; Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth; and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.

These Massachusetts-based institutes continue to thrive by focusing on innovation. The Broad Institute seeks to transform medicine by identifying biological processes at the molecular level to understand their innermost workings. Woods Hole Oceanographic researches everything from the bacterium that causes Lyme disease to drought prediction to the impact of glaciers on oceans. The Whitehead Institute investigates dozens of biological mechanisms to determine the origins of Parkinson’s and the genetic foundation of autism. And at Forsyth, the world’s leading independent organization dedicated to scientific research and translation in oral health and related biomedical sciences, a team of scientists is developing novel saliva-based diagnostics, and preventative and curative treatments and products that will advance oral and overall health across the globe.

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The spirit of innovation that imbues Massachusetts institutes is not just a matter of using scientific research to benefit humankind. Transforming biological knowledge into game-changing medical advances is critically necessary in an era of shrinking federal government resources. Independent research institutes must not only develop concepts, ideas, and opportunities that lead to new pharmaceutical and consumer products. They must also identify breakthroughs that will have lasting impact within their field of expertise.

For many decades, Forsyth has been a top research grant recipient from the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. Forsyth proudly boasts a long track record of scientific breakthroughs that have transformed dental medicine and overall health. Our outstanding reputation is bolstered by a wide network of collaboration and support for exploratory research, preclinical studies, clinical trials and product development.

Like any institute, Forsyth cannot rest on its laurels. Compelled by human needs and an understanding that future success depends upon innovation, the Institute has embraced new and broader directions over the past decade, including areas such as human genomics and systems biology for individualized oral medicine; new diagnostics and therapeutics, including novel classes of terminators of inflammation which also promote tissue regeneration; and deciphering the dynamic interplay between humans and the trillions of bacterial passengers – the so-called ‘human microbiome’ – that inhabit the body, many through the oral cavity.

For an organization like Forsyth, achieving new goals and aspirations means developing best-in-class research facilities, recruiting the best new scientists, and undertaking important research challenges. For example, backed by a $4.1 million capital grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), the newly-created Forsyth Salivary Diagnostic Center (FCSD) will soon begin work on developing and commercializing saliva-based tests to replace costly and inconvenient blood-based disease detection tests that are currently used at virtually every level of medical diagnostics. Because saliva is easily obtained in a non-invasive, painless manner, it has the potential to become the diagnostic of choice for infants, children and indeed people of all ages, and will yield new opportunities for early disease detection and prevention.

Microbiologists at Forsyth also have developed a proprietary, one-of-a-kind ‘gene chip’ technology that can detect 300 of the most prevalent oral bacteria. This breakthrough is now being used to explore the entire community of oral bacteria that can cause periodontitis (gum diseases), which afflicts 40 percent of adults in the United States, and is associated serious medical conditions including diabetes, premature birth, and cardiovascular diseases. Forsyth is also working hard to fully understand why people develop gum disease, how the disease progresses, and how to predict active disease before it occurs. These findings will likely lead to new commercial product applications.

The nature of independent research Institutes has and will continue to change over the course of time, but one constant will remain. The freedom they provide to researchers to focus on breakthroughs will lead to novel treatments, medical advances and betterment for humankind across the earth.

Philip Stashenko is president and chief executive officer of Forsyth.
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