Encouraging Innovation at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

By Dennis S. Charney, MD

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai embraces collaboration, creativity, disruptive thinking, and entrepreneurship—the same principles that have guided Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook—and changed our lives. Scientific revolutions, like technological breakthroughs, occur when we pursue big ideas and challenge conventional wisdom knowing there are no guarantees.

The traditional, brick-by-brick, “development by accumulation” approach of academic medicine is simply progressing too slowly. Our society needs breakthroughs, the kind of paradigm shifts that author Thomas S. Kuhn described in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Creating a culture of innovation at Icahn School of Medicine requires making large investments and having the right mindset, which we see as a transformative approach to discovery. I tell our faculty that we must be willing to fail. In fact, failure is part of the learning process and an opportunity for growth. Scientists who are not failing are not being innovative enough.

The Icahn School of Medicine has recruited brilliant, ambitious investigators who believe the impossible is possible, and are willing to take the high-risk conceptual leaps that are necessary to get there. We have hired leading technologists, mathematicians, intellectual property attorneys, and business executives with deep start-up experience, some transplanted from Silicon Valley, to join with Mount Sinai’s doctors and researchers. We have partnered with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to access world-class engineering expertise. This influx of talent is spurring new levels of collaboration among a faculty that has a broader range of expertise and talent than ever before.

We are recruiting not only a diverse faculty, but also multi-talented students. The Icahn School of Medicine’sFlexMed policy, which grants conditional admission after two years of college, selects exceptionally promising students in engineering, physics, math, and humanities for a quarter of the spots in each medical school class. Having a broad mix of smart students who think they can change the world pushes our faculty to be the best it can be and furthers our culture of innovation.

Equipped with a faculty and student body dedicated to creative thinking, we are adopting new approaches to medical education that embed entrepreneurism and technology skills into the curriculum.

The Q.E.D. project (an acronym for the Latin phrase, “which had to be demonstrated”) calls for teams to identify unmet needs in medical care delivery, develop solutions, and build prototypes that are evaluated for innovation, practicality, ease of use, and commercial potential. One team created a credit-card sized device that allows patients to test themselves for neutropenia, a condition in which there is an abnormally low number of white blood cells that fight off infection. We are backing our call for entrepreneurism with real dollars by creating a venture fund within Mount Sinai to invest in new ideas from faculty and students.

Most significant among Mount Sinai’s investments is our building of two supercomputers; these place us at the forefront of medicine in harnessing the power of big data analytics. In addition, our Biobank stores detailed information on nearly 30,000 patients, allowing us to build mathematical models aimed at understanding the dynamics of disease. Supercomputers have also ushered in the era of personalized medicine at Mount Sinai by generating the capability to pinpoint genetic mutations that then determine the most efficacious course of treatment for cancer patients.

Innovative thinking is leading to other breakthroughs at Mount Sinai. Our cardiac team has successfully tested a gene therapy that can help cells reverse heart failure. We are also using five different non-invasive imaging techniques to better predict those at greatest risk for developing stroke and heart attacks.

To shepherd our discoveries to the marketplace, Mount Sinai Innovation Partners seeks commercial applications, files for patents, nurtures start-up companies within the Mount Sinai community, and partners with industry.

Such innovative partnerships include projects with:

  • Apple, to develop mobile health apps;
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, to uncover triggers that cause Inflammatory bowel disease; and
  • Pfizer, to identify new compounds and accelerate research and drug development.

Our culture of innovation is leading to a pipeline of promising treatments, including

  • a new technique for administration of the drug Ketamine, which can treat depression in a matter of hours, the result of research I have been conducting for years
  • a universal flu vaccine based upon constant elements of the virus rather than strains that change annually, which has the potential for greater efficacy than existing influenza vaccines with less frequent administration
  • a broad-spectrum anti-viral drug that targets host factors and could prove effective against a wide variety of viruses.

These advancements build on past Mount Sinai successes, such as the development of Fabrazyme, a recombinant form of a human enzyme, and the only approved product in the United States that treats individuals with Fabry disease, a rare but devastating metabolic condition.

To generate new discoveries, academic medical centers must promote a culture of innovation, which is why the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is investing heavily in innovative thinkers and technology. There are no guarantees our bets will pay off, but without them we surely will not succeed in changing the face of medicine. And that is our goal: to reimagine what is possible in order to produce the only result that really matters—radically better outcomes for patients.

Charney DennisDennis Charney, MD is a world-renowned researcher and transformation leader who, through his commitment to innovation and science, has led the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to unparalleled growth and high national rankings. He is a former Yale psychiatry professor/researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, where he oversaw the Mood and Anxiety Disorder Research Program. Dr. Charney’s work demonstrating ketamine as a rapidly acting antidepressant was hailed as one of the most exciting developments in antidepressant therapy in decades. He’s written more than 700 publications and co-authored Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. He can be reached at dennis.charney@mssm.edu.