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Council for Harvard Medicine/Board of Fellows Reception, Remarks by Harvard University Lawrence H. Summers

Boston, Massachusetts

Thanks very much, Joe. You know, we are all very lucky to have a Dean of Harvard Medical School like Joe Martin. Joe has brought extraordinary vision, extraordinary determination, extraordinary patience, and extraordinary skill to strengthening this medical community, and to strengthening this city. We are all very lucky to have him as our Dean. Thank you, Joe Martin.

My goal tonight is not to do what I, as a layperson, cannot completely do, which is to distinguish between the different types of biology: chemical biology, systems biology, structural biology, and cellular biology. But I want to try to talk as someone who has invested a fair amount of time over the last few years about why I think this is all really important.

I am going to relate it to an experience in my life. Twenty years ago, I was treated for cancer within a few blocks of here at the Brigham Hospital, for Hodgkin’s disease, and as you can see it was an entirely successful treatment. While it was happening, I knew enough and was intellectually aggressive enough that I was probably a more challenging patient to treat than the average patient that the doctors there commonly treated. But it was only afterwards that I actually spent some time learning about the regimen that had been so effective in my case. And I learned a few things.

I learned first that it would not have been available to me if I had fallen ill 15 years before I did. I learned second that it had come out of, basically, entirely empirical research: let us try this, let us try that, let us try the other thing, let us try another thing, and maybe one of these things will work. I learned third that it was very poorly targeted, that it affected the cells that were causing problems in my body, but that it also affected a very large number of other cells, thereby limiting the doses of the treatment that could be used. Finally, I learned that the process that had led to it had been a process of individual trial: we will try this chemical, and then we will try this chemical, then we will try that chemical.

Having learned all those things, I had a continuing interest in medical and life sciences research, which I have been able to indulge much more actively since I came back to the University as President four and a half years ago. Here is what I have learned: I have learned that it is still true that the discoveries we make come “just in time” for large numbers of people. But I have learned that three things have changed very profoundly over that generation. We now have ways of targeting, very specifically and very precisely, what we want to accomplish with the therapeutic agents we develop. We now have ways of tailoring our interventions so they affect very specific targets, and do not affect other targets, and do not cause collateral damage. And we now have ways of screening not just one substance at a time, not a hundred substances at a time, not even a thousand substances at a time, but tens and tens of thousands of substances at a time.

For those reasons, not only do we have the potential to find cures in the way we did decades ago, but the potential to do so at a vastly expanded rate. That is why I believe that when the history of this period is written 300 years from now, it will be what is happening in the life sciences that will be one of the very, very few things that is remembered.

Nobody can predict the future, and the scientists who actually do the research and understand this stuff are appropriately careful in making predictions. But I, relatively unencumbered with knowledge, will be less careful in making predictions.

I predict that three of the following five things will have happened in the next 30 years:

  • A vaccine that prevents malaria will have been found based on a genetic analysis, and it will have been successfully delivered in a way that will prevent between 500,000 and a million unnecessary fatalities each year.
  • We will no longer primarily refer to cancers by the place in the body that they afflict, but instead, by their genetic makeup. And as a consequence, we will target cancers far more effectively with agents that we know and be far more effective in discovering new agents, resulting in substantial progress against cancer.
  • Stem cells will have provided the basis for a new and far more effective cure to diabetes, or Parkinson’s disease, or both.
  • Progress in neuroscience will have led to new approaches that will very substantially reduce, by half or more, the burden of Alzheimer’s disease on an aging population.
  • We each will have a customized genome that will have been measured, recorded, and understood in the same way that our blood type is today, and that will be the basis for systematic advice that most, but not all of us, will follow with respect to our regimens of diet, exercise, and much else.

I did not say all of those things would happen. I said three out of five of those things would happen. If that is accurate, think about what a different world it will be and what it will mean to the reduction of human suffering.

And here is what is really exciting for all of us: if you draw a circle the radius of one mile around where we are standing, there is no other circle with the radius of one mile that has two-thirds as much life sciences talent anywhere on this planet. If you draw a circle that includes the whole of the cities of Cambridge and Boston, something similar is true. Whether you measure by the number of articles published, by the number of people with Ph.D.s, by the number of citations, by the number of awards won, we are the central point on this planet for the development of this science that has so much potential to make the world a better place.

That is why I say to you that the risks are all on one side. There is no risk that we will over-invest. There is no risk that we will do too much. The only risk is that we will fail an incredible collection of resources that can make such a difference for humanity. That is why it is my job, that is why it is Joe’s job, that is why, I would humbly suggest, we all share in the job to make sure that this progress is not limited by some bureaucratic rule about how the University is organized, is not limited by lack of physical space, is not limited by lack of facilities, is not limited by lack of resources, but is limited only by the imagination of the brilliant people who work here.

Because I can tell you that will not be any real limit at all.

Thank you very much.