Harvard Medical School has received a $200 million donation — the largest in its history — to support research into fundamental questions about human illness and health.
The pledge, from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, will enable the school to hire researchers, add to its advanced technology, and a build an “incubator” in the Longwood area to help bring research findings to market.
But Harvard officials said the gift promotes loftier goals than just new hires and purchases. The money, they said, will free researchers to pursue the questions that intrigue them, even when no immediate application can be foreseen. At the same time, the incubator building and other resources are intended to more quickly translate scientific insights into therapies.
“This gift will support not just Harvard Medical School specifically but the entire health sciences ecosystem at Harvard,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, the university’s president.
As a result of the gift, said Dr. George Q. Daley, Harvard Medical School dean, “If we have conversations with scientists today and a great idea surfaces, we can fund it tomorrow.”
Daley announced the gift Thursday morning as a surprise at a forum on the medical school’s future.
The donor, Len Blavatnik, is a Ukrainian-born billionaire with US and British citizenship who has donated tens of millions of dollars internationally to support life sciences research and education, including previous gifts to Harvard over the past decade. He earned a Harvard MBA in 1989.
Although Blavatnik’s gift is the medical school’s biggest, the donation is dwarfed by the $400 million to the John Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2015 and the $350 million in 2014 to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Both those gifts boosted the schools’ endowments, and resulted in a name change to honor the donor.
Harvard Medical School is keeping its name for now. But a large portion of the school will be renamed. The 10 academic departments in science and social science — as distinguished from the affiliated hospitals where postgraduate training takes place — will be called the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.
Blavatnik made his fortune in aluminum, oil, and gas after the fall of the Soviet Union and in 2011 bought the Warner Music Group. His philanthropy has sometimes raised eyebrows because of his alleged connections to Russian oligarchs.
When Oxford University in England named a school of government after Blavatnik in 2015, some 20 critics wrote to chide the school for “selling its reputation and prestige to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s associates,” according to The Guardian newspaper. Last year, after Blavatnik donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, an Oxford professor quit in protest, the Guardian reported.
Although no wrongdoing has been alleged, ABC News reported in the spring that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into Blavatnik’s donation to the inauguration as part of an inquiry into foreign financial support for Trump.
Asked about the reports, Bacow, Harvard’s president, stood by the donor, calling him a “distinguished alumnus” and “somebody that we know very well.”
“We’re very comfortable with who Len is,” Bacow said. “Len is well-known to the medical community here at Harvard and has been very supportive of science at Harvard and elsewhere. . . . He’s also somebody who is intensely curious, who believes in the power of science to improve the human condition, and he also believes in backing really talented young scientists.”
Blavatnik was taken ill this week and had to cancel his planned appearance at Thursday’s announcement, Harvard officials said. He was also unavailable for an interview. His spokesman referred questions to Harvard.
Blavatnik’s gift will not be used to boost the medical school’s $4 billion endowment, nor will it help close the school’s running but shrinking deficit, estimated at $11 million for the 2019 fiscal year.
Instead, the money has been pledged to support research projects.
“We’re really living through a revolution in life sciences,” said Daley, the medical school dean. “We can learn to prevent, diagnose, and intervene to change the course of chronic disease.”
But the most important research is often done in computers rather than test tubes. These complex and expensive technologies can illuminate the tiniest parts of cells and sort massive quantities of data about them.
The Blavatnik gift “fills a critical gap in our ability to do scientific research,” said neurobiology professor Rachel Wilson. Federal grants can take years to obtain. “With this kind of funding, we can do things tomorrow if we have a good idea and can convince people that it’s worthwhile,” she said.
Also federal money typically goes to projects likely to produce fast results. “That makes it really difficult to take on risky projects and pursue scientific questions that are deeply mysterious,” Wilson said. Those trying to solve mysteries don’t know when — or if — they will get an answer, yet such work underlies the biggest advances in science.
Wilson is trying to crack the mystery of how the electrical activity within the brain is translated into senses and actions. Such knowledge may someday lead to better psychiatric treatments and improvements in technologies such as the cochlear implants that bring a semblance of hearing to deaf people.
But the human brain has billions of cells whose interactions are little understood. Wilson is starting by trying to diagram the brain of a fruit fly, which operates in a similar way but on a much smaller scale. Even so, a fruit fly brain contains 100,000 cells. “That requires us to collaborate with people who have a lot of specialized expertise in running electron microscopes,” she said. “We also need to be working closely with theoreticians and mathematicians.”
In the past, biomedical research has been carried out almost entirely by individual labs specialized in specific areas of biology, explained Joan S. Brugge, a cell biologist. But today the scientific questions are too complex, and the technology to unravel them too sophisticated, for any one lab to manage, she said.
Brugge’s work on breast cancer is an example. She is studying the breast tissues of women who have their breasts surgically removed because they carry gene mutations that put them at high risk of developing breast cancer. Her team is examining hundreds of thousands of individual cells to look for differences in small cell populations that might signal the early origins of cancer.
But searching through all those cells requires advanced technologies and expensive instruments, and collaborations with clinicians and scientists from many different disciplines, including computational mathematicians. All that takes money.
“This gift is going to make it feasible to build teams much more nimbly,” Brugge said.
George Church, professor of genetics, said the Blavatnik gift will enhance research using new imaging technologies that enable scientists to identify individual molecules within a cell and to create “organoids” — pieces of human tissue, like miniature organs — for testing drugs in the laboratory.
“Our ability to read and write biological structures at this level of precision allows us to quickly and accurately test the new therapies,” Church said.
The donation, Church said, will create “a meeting place where things can get done — not just to share ideas, but to turn those ideas into something that positively impacts society.”Felice J. Freyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.