Winter 2014

Real-World Science

The Tufts Institute for Innovation crosses disciplines to take on global problems

By Jacqueline Mitchell

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Illustration: Federico Jordan

Four research teams at Tufts have set out to solve some daunting public health problems under the auspices of a new university-wide venture, the Tufts Institute for Innovation (TII). The institute, launched on August 28 in new laboratories on the Boston campus, is a major initiative of the university’s strategic plan, Tufts: The Next 10 Years (T10).

What distinguishes TII from similar research centers, says Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco, is that “from the outset, findings in the laboratory will be tightly and deliberately coupled with strategies for implementing them around the world. TII is a university-wide commitment to science for social good.” To support the institute’s start-up, Monaco has allocated funds that were bequeathed to the university; he intends to make the institute a priority in Tufts’ next capital campaign.

Four projects addressing the TII’s inaugural research theme, “Microbes: Improving the Environment and the Human Condition,” were chosen to receive seed funding:

Waterborne diseases. A team led by Elena Naumova (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Public Health and Community Medicine) and Kurt Pennell (Civil and Environmental Engineering) seeks to reduce the public health burden of waterborne infectious diseases in Ghana and India. They are collaborating with colleagues from Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, and the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research at the University of Ghana. 

Lyme disease. Sam Telford (Infectious Disease and Global Health) and his group are developing an oral vaccine to reduce the prevalence of the microbe in mice that causes Lyme disease. Their goal is to reduce transmission of the Lyme-causing bacterium to humans. 

Hospital infection. Xingmin Sun (Infectious Disease and Global Health) and his team are working on a vaccine against a stubborn hospital-acquired infection, Clostridium difficile, which kills nearly 30,000 people in the United States alone each year. They’re targeting those at highest risk for infection, including the elderly and patients with weakened immune systems.

TB test. Gillian Beamer (Infectious Disease and Global Health) and her research team are developing a nearly instantaneous diagnostic test for tuberculosis. The project is addressing the limitations of existing tests, including heat stability, portability and rapid results. 

“Tufts is uniquely positioned to produce discoveries that improve the human condition.” —Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco

To ensure that discoveries get to those who need them most, each research team will recruit other Tufts faculty who can help surmount the political, cultural, regulatory, infrastructure and economic barriers that can hinder scientific breakthroughs from having significance beyond the laboratory. “When you have an outcome that really addresses a problem, you realize it’s not just about the science or the technology,” says David R. Walt, a University Professor and TII’s founding director. “It’s about actually understanding the problem and getting the right people in the room who have experience in those areas.”

While TII work will be conducted on all three campuses, the institute’s base is in 5,000 square feet of newly renovated laboratory, office, and meeting space in the Biomedical Research & Public Health Building. The TII research teams—which will include undergraduates and graduate students—will also tap the resources of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology next door in the Jaharis Center, the new Arnold 8 Biosafety Laboratory upstairs, built to advance research in infectious diseases, and Boston’s world-class hospitals.

Into the Field

With first-year seed funding and incubator lab space assured, the research teams will seek funding from external sources to complete their work. In an era of tight federal resources, funding agencies typically want a grant application to contain preliminary results produced by highly cross-disciplinary teams, Walt says. 

Many of the TII research projects will have both social and commercial value, says Lauren Linton, who joined Tufts in July as TII’s deputy director. “TII is designed to foster continuous waves of discovery and entrepreneurship,” she says.

Future projects might engineer microbes for cleaning up oil spills or harvesting carbon out of the air, according to John Leong, chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology and a member of the institute’s executive committee. TII could solve problems in fields such as medicine, engineering, the environment and public health because it fuses strengths across disciplines, he says.

Additional thematic areas of research will be developed in the future, and other Tufts faculty will be invited to submit proposals that support those areas. Says Monaco: “With our expertise in human and animal models of disease, international business and policy, engineering, the environment, the humanities and humanitarian issues, and geopolitical contexts and challenges, Tufts is uniquely positioned to produce discoveries that improve the human condition.”

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.

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