It’s no exaggeration to say that the health and well-being of millions of people around the globe rests in the hands of four University of Minnesota trailblazers. Doris Taylor, Karen Hsiao Ashe, Meri Firpo, and Dorothy Hatsukami are each leading medical research initiatives that could dramatically improve our quality and quantity of life within a decade—even as soon as three years from now, when Hatsukami estimates that a vaccine to prevent nicotine addiction could have Food and Drug Administration approval.
Her work on smoking, Taylor’s on creating bioartificial hearts and other organs, Ashe’s toward a molecular block (maybe in pill form) to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, and Firpo’s on stem cell engineering to cure diabetes is groundbreaking. And their affiliation with the University of Minnesota underscores the school’s history and ambition as a medical research pioneer.
“One thing that’s great about working at the University of Minnesota is that we have the world’s first stem cell program,” says Firpo, who came from the University of California four years ago. “We also have a great record of transplantation therapy—the first successful bone marrow transplant, the first pancreas transplant.”
The university is now able to accelerate the progress of its researchers thanks to “virtual corridors of discovery” that it established about six years ago, according to Frank Cerra, who heads the university’s Academic Health Center. The corridors center on cardiovascular disease, diabetes, brain and nerve disorders, and a few other fields. Identifying them helped the university focus its resources on its strengths. Using the concept means encouraging collaboration between researchers across many disciplines and asking how all of the university’s relevant expertise can be brought to bear in solving a problem. Taylor’s early work on heart matrices, for example, relied on help from engineers and biomaterials scientists in the U’s Institute of Technology, Cerra says—people she likely wouldn’t have known about prior to the corridor concept.
The university’s portfolio of research grants has increased by about 8 percent annually for the past few years, he adds, and only a few schools in the country can make that claim: “We’re getting more awards” because the interdisciplinary programs and developments in the corridors “compete better in the national environment.”