Rensselaer and Icahn: A Window on the Future of Health Care in America

Category: National
January, 2017
Harmonie Club

Remarks to “Rensselaer and Icahn” Panel

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Welcome, everyone. It is delightful to be here with all of you in this beautiful building designed by Stanford White at the beginning of the 20th century.

This evening, we will consider the 21st century, and the future of health care in the United States, and around the globe.

As Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute approaches the 200th anniversary of our founding in 2024, three factors have changed and clarified our mission to apply “science to the common purposes of life”:

First is the fact that the challenges we face are increasingly complex, interconnected, and global—including issues surrounding our food, water, and energy supplies; human health and the mitigation of disease; a changing climate; and the allocation and geopolitics of scarce natural resources.

The second great factor defining this moment is the consequent need to educate young people ready to collaborate across disciplinary and geographical borders, and to combine technical proficiency with intellectual agility.

The third factor is the ubiquity of technologies that magnify the power of the individual, and that connect us in new ways.

The avalanche of data generated by social media, by low-cost genome sequencing, and by the Internet of Things—with its smart phones, running shoes, automobiles, and biomedical devices—all equipped with sensors—offers us the raw materials for a new understanding of the world. In fact, data can be considered as a great new natural resource. As with any resource, however, it is up to us to find ways to use it wisely.

This is a watershed moment where our challenges, and our opportunities are so great that they cannot be addressed by even the most brilliant person working alone, nor by a single discipline, institution, sector, or nation.

What is required is The “New” Polytechnic: a new paradigm for teaching, learning, and research—the technological research university re-envisioned as a fresh collaborative endeavor across disciplines, sectors, and global regions. Such a university leads by using advanced technologies to unite a multiplicity of disciplines and perspectives, in order to take on large, multi-faceted challenges.

Guided by the original Rensselaer Plan, and now The Rensselaer Plan 2024, Rensselaer is being transformed into The New Polytechnic. One outcome of we have achieved in this regard is the affiliation, beginning slightly less than two years ago, of Rensselaer, a world-class technological research university without a medical school, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, a world-class medical school without a technological research university. We are very pleased to have Dr. Dennis Charney, the Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, with us this evening.

Ultimately, Mount Sinai and Rensselaer will do—together—what neither one could do alone:

  • to realize the full promise of regenerative medicine;
  • to develop new therapeutics based on a molecular understanding of disease;
  • to make the goal of personalized medicine a reality;
  • to develop advanced medical devices and imaging tools;
  • to use advanced cognitive and immersive systems to improve decision-making in medicine; and
  • to educate physicians, scientists, and engineers for the future.

Our partnership has been inspired, in part, by other successful models of cross-institutional collaboration, such as The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which is helping to establish and exploit the molecular basis of many diseases.

Our partnership, also, is the result of intelligent investments over the last 15 years at Rensselaer in biotechnology and the life sciences, with concomitant investments in world-class platforms such as the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies—and in our remarkable computational ecosystem. Of course, our most important investments have been in people—especially our faculty, and our students.

At my inaugural ceremony back in 1999, I posed a few fundamental questions to help the entire Rensselaer community think about ways to move the Institute to the forefront of the world's great technological universities.

I asked that we consider the core strengths that Rensselaer could build upon in its research endeavor. I also asked that we consider this: “Are there areas that are so vital that we must create a presence in them—in order to stand in the community of world-class universities?”

We put an early stake in the ground in an arena in which Rensselaer was relatively unknown, but one that held such promise for humanity, that we were compelled to address it: biotechnology.

Both health care and agriculture already were being revolutionized by advances in the life sciences and bioengineering. Rensselaer could not afford to miss this moment, when looming large were new opportunities to develop more effective therapeutics and tools of diagnosis, to regenerate and engineer tissues, and to improve industrial processes and products using the tools and methods devised by that cleverest of all engineers—nature.
Admittedly, there were people at Rensselaer who worried, at the time, that in aspiring to influence within a new sphere, we might stretch ourselves too thin.

However, biology itself was being transformed as the visualization and manipulation of individual molecules, and indeed the genome, became increasingly important; and as the life sciences focused more and more on phenomena that could be mathematically described—and drew on an understanding of systems, on computation, on design-driven research.

It was not so much that Rensselaer was moving into biotechnology—as that biotechnology was moving towards Rensselaer—towards our history, our mission, our strengths, our ambitions for the future.

The Rensselaer Board of Trustees embraced this vision, and The Rensselaer Plan, approved in May of 2000, promised that we would make “dramatic investments” in biotechnology. They included over $100 million to build and to equip the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, or CBIS, one of the world’s most advanced centers for biotechnology research—a dynamic and productive crossroads that brings together biologists, biochemical and biomedical engineers, chemists and materials scientists, physicists, architects, and many other experts across the disciplines.

As we had hoped, CBIS has expanded and revitalized the research enterprise of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Since 2000, Rensselaer research expenditures funded by the National Institutes of Health have increased nearly fourteen-fold. This research funding anchors overall sponsored research growth at Rensselaer from about $35 million per year in 2000 to approximately $100 million per year today.

The 40 resident faculty at CBIS and their students have published more than 2000 peer-reviewed papers in subject areas that include protein synthesis and manufacturing, regenerative medicine, biomaterials, and bioinformatics. This work has been cited in the scientific literature nearly 30,000 times. It has resulted in new classes of therapeutics to address threats to human health that include Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, diabetes, and spinal cord injury and neurodegenerative diseases.

It is important to note that many of the investigations and discoveries arising within CBIS—and indeed, in the field of biomedicine as a whole—require sophisticated digital tools that are contributing to an explosion of medical data begging for interpretation. The genomics revolution alone is generating a staggering amount of data.

There also is the tremendous challenge of integrating data so it can be interpreted, including patient records from myriad disparate systems, genomic information, lifestyle information, streaming data from medical devices—information, even, about our microbiomes, or the microbes that have colonized us, which increasingly are implicated in health and disease.

Ten years ago, we invested in our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies to address the great challenges in medicine. Today, our focus on improving human health is one significant reason we are investing in The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, or The Rensselaer IDEA.

The Rensselaer IDEA brings together our strengths in web science, high-performance and cognitive computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies—and links them to applications at the interface of engineering, and the physical, life, and social sciences.

The tools we use include the most powerful supercomputer at an American private university, a petascale IBM Blue Gene/Q system—which is an Advanced Multiprocessing Optimized System, whose acronym AMOS harkens back to our co-founder, Amos Eaton. AMOS is able to perform more than a quadrillion floating point operations, or mathematical calculations, per second.

Supercomputers like AMOS are particularly well suited to the modeling of very large or very intricate systems. At Rensselaer, our researchers are doing important work in protein folding—determining how, out of trillions of possibilities, a chain of amino acids, encoded by our genes, folds itself into the shape that determines its function as a protein. Misfolded proteins are implicated in a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

However, not every problem in medicine takes such a form. Sometimes, the answer to a great question requires finding the single valuable insight within an unruly flood of non-mathematical data.

Cognitive computing—or computing by machines able to make inferences from data, and to teach themselves—add to our capabilities in another way. You may be familiar with the IBM cognitive computing system Watson, which, in 2011, was victorious over the best human champions in Jeopardy! Watson is able to absorb enormous amounts of natural language data—such as the 2.5 million scientific, technical, and medical papers published every year in peer-reviewed English-language journals, a flood of information with which no human doctor can keep up. Watson can find valuable correlations within that data, and generate hypotheses from it, for human experimentation and exploration. We are very proud that many of the key figures in the development of Watson are Rensselaer alumni, and that we were the first university worldwide to receive a Watson computer for research.

Now, our scientists are working to extend cognitive computing to the entire world of open data on the Web, to make these intelligent systems even more nuanced.

Researchers at Rensselaer also are investigating neuromorphic computing, or computing that mimics the architecture and function of the human brain, in order to gain some of the brain’s advantages, including extreme energy efficiency.

Neuromorphic computing also aspires to achieve the human ability to learn through one’s senses, as well as through one’s reason. Neuromorphic processors that mimic neurons and synapses are much more adept at analyzing sensory data than conventional processors. The potential applications in medicine are numerous, including hand-held diagnostic devices, and devices that assist the vision impaired.

Our scientists at The Rensselaer IDEA are exploring hybrids among all these types of computing—so that our endeavors can be assisted by a holistic intelligence more like our own.

Rensselaer researchers are improving not merely on machine perception—they also are devising new ways to assist human perception. Sometimes the best way to understand what the data is telling us is to see it, to hear it, or to feel it.

We have a magnificent platform for research into human-scale immersive technologies: Our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC. We are in the process of developing, in partnership with IBM, The Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory @EMPAC. Initially, this laboratory will focus on creating Situations Rooms—interactive environments that automatically respond to their occupants by listening to and watching them. A Situations Room will help collaborators working at the same time on different aspects of a larger project to make better decisions—such as all of the physicians involved in a patient’s care, working together within a cognitive medical diagnostics room.

The Rensselaer IDEA is helping biomedical researchers and physicians to find important insights within the enormous data sets we have access to through our partnerships, including those generated by the 2.6 million outpatient visits, 500,000 Emergency Department visits, and 170,000 inpatient admissions each year in the Mount Sinai Health System—as well as the claims data from 150 million de-identified patients provided through another partnership, with Optum Labs, a center for research established by Optum, an arm of UnitedHealth Group, and the Mayo Clinic.

This enormous trove of data gives Rensselaer and its collaborators the scope to consider even uncommon phenomena and rare diseases, and to realize the promise of personalized medicine. Given the slow approval process for new drugs, data tools can accelerate dramatically our ability to get targeted new treatments to patients at much lower costs, using compounds that already are approved.

I could go on about the exciting things happening at Rensselaer—but I prefer to introduce our two distinguished discussants, who will help us consider the promise of biotechnology and interdisciplinary investigations to transform medicine, and to improve human lives.

Dr. Dennis Charney is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and President for Academic Affairs of the Mount Sinai Health System. Dr. Charney was named Dean in 2004, and under his leadership, the Icahn School has risen to the top 20 institutions in National Institutes of Health funding, and it currently ranks fifth in research funding per faculty member.

Dr. Charney is an expert in neurobiology, who has made fundamental contributions to the understanding and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, including the discovery of novel treatments for treatment-resistant depression.

He has written more than 700 scientific papers, book chapters, and books. He co-authored the 2012 book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, based on Dr. Charney’s research into the psychobiological mechanisms of human resilience to stress.

Dr. Charney earned his undergraduate degree at Rutgers College and his M.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in 2000. His scientific research has been honored with numerous major awards. He regularly is recognized as one of the “Best Doctors in America.” And he has improved many, many lives.

We are delighted and honored to have him with us.

Our second discussant, Dr. Jonathan S. Dordick, has served as the Vice President for Research of Rensselaer since September of 2012. He is the Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Professor Dordick’s multi-disciplinary research group includes chemical engineers, bioengineers, materials scientists, biologists, chemists and microbiologists—who, together, use a quantitative understanding of biological principles to advance bioengineering, nanobiotechnology, drug discovery, and biomanufacturing.

Currently, his research focuses on enzyme structure and function at biological-material interfaces—including a novel strategy for combatting antibiotic-resistant bacteria; high-throughput drug and functional materials discovery; and large-scale bioprocessing.

Together with Dr. Robert Linhardt, our Ann and John H. Broadbent, Jr. ’59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, he has developed a scalable cost-efficient approach to producing bioengineered heparin.

Heparin is the most widely used, fast-acting anticoagulant drug worldwide—and currently derived, unsafely, from pig intestines. Much of the global supply of heparin comes from under-regulated farms and workshops in rural China, and, in 2008, deliberate adulteration killed 81 people in the United States alone. Just last week, Professors Linhardt and Dordick launched an industry-funded applied research center to accelerate the commercialization of safe, synthetic heparin. We are very proud of this groundbreaking research, which will benefit patients worldwide.

Professor Dordick received his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from Brandeis University and his Ph.D. in Biochemical Engineering from MIT. He has published nearly 350 journal papers and holds nearly 40 patents related to his research. Among many other honors and awards, Professor Dordick last month was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and he just received the highest bioengineering honor from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers—the Food, Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Award.

Please join me in welcoming them…