Q&A with Harry W. Orf, PhD: The Case for MGH Research

Harry W. Orf, PhD, is senior vice president for Research at Massachusetts General Hospital. A former director of the MGH Molecular Biology Laboratories, Dr. Orf  served from 2004 until 2012 as the president for Scientific Operations at the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla.

Why did you return to Mass General in 2012?

It was an opportunity to be involved with what I believe is not only one of the largest, but also the most dynamic and innovative biomedical research programs in the country. I had a wonderful stint of 20 years here in molecular biology where I helped start up a new department. At Scripps, I had the opportunity to build from scratch a complete translational research institute. Those experiences helped me prepare for this role.

What is your primary focus for the MGH research community?

The quality of the science here is the best, bar none. But the support structure that we have is very complex. Our team came up with what we call the prime directive for MGH research. If you are working in the lab in any context, whether you are a principal investigator, a technician, a post-doc, a graduate student, you are our customer. Our job is to help you focus on the science. That means making all of the non-research things we ask MGH researchers to do as simple and as efficient as possible.

The hospital is planning a new research institute.  We have all these wonderful assets scientifically, but they have grown up individually—a thousand flowers blooming concept, if you will. We want to take those flowers, put them into a garden and let the world see all that we have.  Our plan for the institute is to have an integrated, outward-looking face, a front door to MGH research. We want to assemble these assets and package them in a way that the external community knows better what they are, and our people internally can know more about what we have.

Another initiative is to create a life registry databank using blood samples and health information from patients, which our researchers can use to learn more about disease.  Patients will be part of our team. They will actively participate in their health care and be a part of helping us with innovation and research.  The collected information can help inform their health care.  We will let them know about work happening that might be important to them personally or clinical trials in which they might be able to enroll.

What makes the MGH research community so successful?

The research and clinical missions are so well integrated here that it allows a constant engine of innovative thought. We have basic research. We have translational research that takes those discoveries and figures out how they can impact the patient. We have clinical research where we can observe its effect on patients, and then we ultimately have outcomes. These outcomes can be new diagnostics, therapeutics or devices.

But the loop doesn’t stop there. Clinicians let the MGH research community know when they could use a device that would do something better or a therapeutic that would address an issue. The information from our clinicians informs the basic research so that innovation is a continuum.

What is the impact of the federal cuts on MGH research, and how are we responding?

The way those cuts are implemented can have devastating effects. The proportion of high-scoring grant applications that are actually being funded has declined dramatically. At Mass General, our Executive Committee on Research (ECOR) has set up an interim support funding mechanism, where anyone who has applied for a National Institutes of Health  grant and received a high score  and did not get funded can apply for money to help them bridge to the next round of applications. Overall, I think we are looking at between 17 and 19 million dollars shortfall. ECOR will not be able to completely fill that gap, but it will be able to provide several millions of dollars of support for the best rated programs.

The impact of sequestration on young scientists is going to be hard to quantify.  There are tremendous opportunities in the research realm today.  The problem is that it is so difficult to get your programs going.  And once you get them going, it is difficult to sustain them. If you are a physician or an MD-PhD who is interested in research, you might have great ideas. But if you look at the hurdles to go through to get the program going and sustain it, as opposed to becoming a clinician who can make just as much or more money with fewer headaches, why would you torture yourself?

What can philanthropy do to help?

Philanthropy is often based on the grateful patient model of support a specific physician, group or department. Philanthropic funding for research is usually for focused research that relates to a specific disease.  It is harder to make a case for investing in a basic research.  You don’t see that immediate return or that personal impact. Yet, without those discoveries from basic research, none of the other things would happen.

Philanthropic support has become even more important. As grant funding is squeezed, the NIH is only funding the most conservative grant applications that already have data indicating it will work. They aren’t able to fund really out-of-the-box ideas. Philanthropy allows our MGH researchers to use unrestricted monies to pursue these and that is where some of the greatest discoveries come from.

The philanthropic support, for example, for our MGH Research Scholars Program, is a tremendous boon. It provides $100,000 per year for five years for an investigator to take those out-of-the-box ideas, try them out and see if they work.  Then they leverage those results to get into the traditional grant funding stream. We know by the feedback we’ve gotten from a number of the scholars, it has influenced them dramatically in terms of not only what direction to take their program in, but in staying in research itself.

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