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Editorial

New food allergy effort is a quintessential Boston case study

Researchers  tackle the root causes of allergies to peanuts and other foods.
Researchers tackle the root causes of allergies to peanuts and other foods. Shutterstock

The case study is a bedrock of clinical science — a way of interrogating the world in its real-life context and drawing lessons from it.

Innovation and scientific inquiry were the last things on Lesley Solomon’s mind when her 6-year-old son was rushed to the emergency room a little over a year ago in anaphylactic shock from a food allergy. Thankfully, her son, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and milk, weathered the crisis, which was triggered by a routine “food challenge” test at a hospital clinic.

Solomon, who is executive director of the Innovation Hub at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, began talking to parents of kids with severe food allergies — and found yawning gaps in scientific knowledge about the root causes of this real-life public health threat, which affects 8 percent of American children. Cases in need of study.

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But what happened next is quintessential Boston, an illustration of the entrepreneurial firepower that can be harnessed when the region’s universities, hospitals, and genetic research institutions converge to tackle some of the most vexing questions in biomedicine. Building on their own network of colleagues and friends in medical and financial sectors, the parents raised some $10 million to seed the new Food Allergy Science Initiative at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The initiative, announced on Wednesday, draws together specialists in clinical medicine, technology, and biology from Yale School of Medicine, Brigham & Women’s, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and MIT, in addition to the Broad. It is led by Ruslan Medzhitov, a professor of immunobiology at Yale.

“We see this as an open-ended effort, engaging multiple groups in the Boston community and beyond. We hope this will engage the imagination and attention of many others in the scientific community,” says Aviv Regev, a core institute member of the Broad, and part of FASI’s scientific leadership.

Years ago, on these opinion pages, Charles Vest and Lawrence Summers, past presidents of MIT and Harvard, respectively, anticipated the potential of this type of collaborative effort. “Throughout its history, Boston has harnessed a remarkable ability to innovate,” Vest and Summers wrote in an op-ed piece for the Globe in 2004. “From the industrial era to the age of genetic research, that ability has propelled the city’s economy forward.”

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Massachusetts has often been birthplace to transformative ideas, the kind that lodge permanently in the public consciousness. The knowledge-intensive hubs that have sprouted over the last 15 years in Kendall Square, Longwood, and the Seaport District, among other places, have certainly driven economic growth in the region. Indeed, Vest and Summers attributed more than 50 percent of postwar US economic growth to technological innovation, much of it stemming from university research. But these sorts of pop-up innovation clusters — with the FASI as a case study — serve as a crucible for discoveries that will someday improve health, security, and well-being for a global population far from the Bay State.