Channeling Curiosity

A scientist struck by cancer is helped—inadvertently—by the research center she once supervised.

The following is an excerpt from Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity by Steven C. Currall, Ed Frauenheim, Sara Jansen Perry, and Emily M. Hunter.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Linda Griffith knows first-hand about the power of academics channeling their curiosity toward real-world problems. Griffith herself inadvertently benefited from the work of the MIT-based Engineering Research Center she once directed. Several years after she led the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center (BPEC), Griffith was stricken with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Following her cancer diagnosis in 2010, Griffith was prescribed a drug called Neulasta, which helps patients avoid infections while their immune systems are weakened by chemotherapy. Neulasta improved on an earlier drug named Neupogen whose effects tapered off quickly. Neulasta is a biotechnology therapy—that is, a protein generated in mass quantities by turning living cells into tiny drug factories. In fact, Neulasta might be considered a second-generation biotechnology. Its longer-lasting impact reflected advanced therapy design.

Both the first and second generations of biotech protein therapy development owe much to BPEC. So does Neulasta. “The kind of protein production techniques pioneered by BPEC made it possible for me to take this drug,” she says. If not a lifesaver to Griffith, Neulasta was a quality-of-life saver. Rather than have to go to a clinic every day for Neupogen shots, Griffith had an injection of Neulasta once every two weeks. That schedule allowed her to continue her research duties and to travel to New York to receive an award while keeping her immune system strong. “Neulasta made it possible for me to have the chemotherapy I had—a high-dose, high frequency chemotherapy to treat this very aggressive cancer,” she says. “I never got an infection. I didn’t even get mouth sores. It’s a pretty miraculous drug.”

Channeled Curiosity refers to orienting curiosity-driven research toward solving real-world problems for societal benefit. It stands in contrast both to purely curiosity-driven academic research and to applied product development efforts at companies that lead to constrained, incremental advances. In effect, Channeled Curiosity takes what is sometimes described as “blue sky” research—investigations based on the intellectual curiosity of the researcher and without a clear goal or concrete application—and puts it on a path toward down-to-earth outcomes. The outcomes are new technology platforms, such as novel classes of drugs, alternative vehicle engines, and digital video tagging systems. Think of scholars’ curiosity as a river of ongoing questions. Keeping real-world impacts in mind is not to say that river should be dammed. Instead, it is routing some of that curiosity toward key issues with the potential to benefit society in important ways.

The BPEC engineering research center exemplified Channeled Curiosity. For some two decades the center steered the energies and talents of researchers toward significant challenges at the intersection of biology and engineering. During its first decade from 1985 to 1995, BPEC helped usher in the era of biotechnology by developing methods to coax cells into manufacturing drugs. Renewed with a second ten-year grant, BPEC then concentrated on gene therapies and laid the foundation for advances in stem cell applications.

As for Griffith, she is now overseeing a roughly $30 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the body on a chip. In effect, Griffith and colleagues will build an in vitro system of multiple artificial organs to better study complex diseases. Although BPEC has formally ceased operations, Griffith sees her NIH-DARPA grant as a direct descendent of BPEC. In the new project, she and her team are directing their energies to solve illnesses such as endometriosis, a painful disease that affects 10 percent of women and often causes infertility. Rather than merely experimenting from curiosity, the scientists are determined to put the body on a chip to good use. “It’s not just building this physical thing. It’s really rationally understanding how to get information out of it and how to model a complex human disease,” Griffith says.

We believe the Channeled Curiosity concept helps clarify how universities can act more entrepreneurially. The concept also steers us in the direction of better returns on our public research investments. Channeled Curiosity ensures that some of our greatest minds focus on improving society—with results such as medical breakthroughs and commercial technologies that boost the economy.

Griffith is among those sharp minds. In 2006, she earned a MacArthur “genius” award in part for work she did on an artificial liver—a predecessor to the body on a chip project. And then BPEC’s own research helped keep her productive when she herself was stricken with cancer. Thanks to Neulasta—and the Channeled Curiosity behind it—she hardly skipped a beat.

Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity by Steven C. Currall, Ed Frauenheim, Sara Jansen Perry, and Emily M. Hunter (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Steven C. Currall, Ed Frauenheim, Sara Jansen Perry, and Emily M. Hunter are the authors of Organized Innovation: A Blueprint for Renewing America’s Prosperity. Steven C. Currall is Dean and Professor of Management in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis. He has conducted research on and taught organizational psychology topics such as innovation, emerging technologies, negotiation, and corporate governance. In addition to leadership positions in schools of management, he has served in engineering schools as Vice Dean, department chair, and endowed chair holder. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ed Frauenheim is an author, speaker, and associate editorial director of Workforce magazine, where he writes about the intersection of people management, technology and business strategy. He co-authored Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era (2011) and his work has appeared in publications including Wired, The Dallas Morning News, and Salon. Sara Jansen Perry, Assistant Professor of Management in the College of Business at the University of Houston-Downtown, earned her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Houston. She teaches management and negotiation courses and conducts research on leadership and stress. She has a background in computer science and information technology sales. Emily M. Hunter is Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship in the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University after earning her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Houston. She teaches negotiation and conducts research on work-family conflict, employee deviance, and servant leadership.

Image credit: Flasks. CC0 via Pixabay.