BAR HARBOR — With a new president, the MDI Biological Laboratory is expanding both physically and conceptually. Hermann Haller, who began his tenure as president at last week’s annual meeting, laid out his vision for the institution at the meeting and in a subsequent interview.
“My strategy is that we cannot survive without enhanced education initiatives and visiting scientists from the outside world,” said Haller. “The education and scientific training must be rigorous and expose future scientists to the possibility of conducting cutting-edge research.”
During former President Kevin Strange’s tenure, the lab focused sharply on regenerative medicine and aging. While Haller acknowledges the progress that was made in those fields, he is advocating for more variety. That variety, though, will still coalesce around related fields.
Haller is also reviving the practice of having a number of scientists come to MDIBL in summer. Typically in the past, in addition to mentoring students from their home institutions, these scientists also served as mentors for the high school and college students who applied directly to the lab.
One of Haller’s goals is to increase the number of high school students in MDIBL programs, for in his experience these students have not settled on a particular direction and are more open to exploring new fields.
The labs where these visiting scientists worked are strictly summer labs and are not winterized. For some years now they have been shuttered, but Haller is meeting with the director of buildings and grounds about making these and the cottages where the scientists and their families lived habitable again. And he would like to build more cottages not only for visiting scientists but also for workshop and conference participants.
Having conference and workshop participants stay on campus, Haller said, fosters discussion and collaboration — another means of invigorating science at MDIBL.
He remains the director of the nephrology and hypertension department at Hannover Medical School in Germany, but in 2012 Haller established a year-round lab facility at MDIBL. He will continue to split his time between the two institutions.
His lab here is located in the administration building and is currently staffed by Lynne Beverly-Staggs and Pat Schroder. Some high school students from Germany have spent up to six months studying at MDIBL, and Haller regularly sends medicals fellows to train here.
Haller describes himself as an academic medical director: He does basic research, has a clinical practice and oversees 42 physicians who treat patients with hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease.
He holds two U.S. patents, one on a drug and the other on a diagnostic tool. He is committed, he said, to taking results from basic research to address specifics needs of individual patients, what’s known as translational medicine. He is looking forward to connecting more research scientists with Maine’s medical community.
In addition to having experience conducting large-scale drug trials and in working with pharmaceutical companies, Haller has founded four biotech companies. Establishing other biotech companies is part of what he considers essential in advancing the promises of science in the 21st century.
MDIBL annual meeting
BAR HARBOR — The faculty at MDI Biological Laboratory, Board Chairman Peter Allen told the annual meeting gathering last week, are “quite a scientific force.”
Allen discussed recent milestones: MDIBL recently received its second COBRE (Center of Biological Research Excellence) award, this one for $12 million. Faculty member Vicki Losick received an outstanding investigator award from the National Institutes of Health, an award that carries with it a $1.7 million grant. And the institution constructed a new facility for meetings, workshops and courses with funding from a state bond.
“All of these achievements,” said Allen, “are a testament to Kevin’s [Strange, outgoing president] management. We owe him our thanks.”
Allen also thanked the staff and faculty who “work tirelessly in shepherding these grants.”
After a national search, said Allen, the search committee selected Hermann Haller, a scientist with proven leadership skills and experience with industry, to succeed Strange.
A graduate of the Free University of Berlin’s medical school, a former postdoctoral fellow at Yale and since 1990 a faculty member at Hannover Medical School in Germany, Haller has written more than 700 peer-reviewed papers, founded four biotech companies and serves on several international panels.
And a plus, Allen said, is that he “does well mentoring.”
In a departure from previous annual meetings, Haller asked MDIBL’s 10 faculty members to briefly describe their research.
He also laid out his expectations for MDIBL and the challenges the lab faces.
“How do we afford to be here?” he asked. Federal grants are diminishing, and the faculty and board must seek new sources of funding if the lab is to continue to grow physically and professionally.
Allen concluded the meeting by announcing a new funding source: a $500,000 bridge grant from Wistar and Martha Morris, long-time supporters of MDIBL. The goal of this two-year grant is to provide short-term funding for faculty who want to explore a new start-up idea or require funding between grants.
In addressing the faculty, Wistar Morris said he hopes the faculty will take pride in and ownership of what they have accomplished. “Martha and I are optimistic,” he said, “and it has been most gratifying to hear about your successes.”