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Eli Broad’s medical research legacy will ‘touch almost the whole world’

Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe Broad, in 2015.
Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe Broad, in 2015.Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Among scientists around the world, Eli Broad’s name will forever be tied to the role the institute he founded played in helping the region emerge from the global pandemic, and the foundation it provided for researchers who are seeking to identify and contain variants of the COVID-19 virus.

But Broad, who died April 30, also will be remembered by families, such as the Chakrabartis in Cambridge, for what the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has done on an individual level, bringing the intellectual clout of a major research institute to bear on a rare illness.

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Along with his wife, Edythe, Broad provided the funding to launch the Broad Institute and poured more than $1 billion into the venture.

An uncommonly collaborative initiative, the nonprofit institute’s work is far-ranging, beginning with its focus on the genetic links that could reveal the molecular cause of diseases. These are massive, multiyear undertakings, but already, research at the Broad has provided a better understanding of genes linked to cancer and diabetes.

How far will the research by scientists at the institute the Broads helped create eventually reach?

“I can’t imagine that at some point the things they’ve done won’t touch almost the whole world,” said Robert S. Langer, a cofounder of Moderna, the Cambridge biotech that has created one of the COVID-19 vaccines, and an institute professor — the highest honor for an MIT faculty — at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “What they’ve done is outstanding and Eli Broad’s philanthropy allowed that to happen.”

But it is the Broad’s more immediate work that has been most visibly felt within the region during the pandemic. It swiftly ramped up a testing regime that became the cornerstone of the region’s response to COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic.

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The inexpensive COVID-19 tests the Broad created made it possible for students to return to some 140 colleges and universities in the Northeast, and the institute is now doing the same for K-12 students in Massachusetts. As of this week, more than 18 million tests have been processed.

Those SARS-CoV-2 viral diagnostic tests on nasal swabs are collected and driven back to the Cambridge headquarters from nursing homes, colleges, health care facilities, homeless shelters, schools, and other organizations.

“We’ve set up this massive testing lab basically out of nothing,” said Stacey Gabriel, senior director of the institute’s Genomics Platform. “When the pandemic hit, we went full force setting up something from scratch, and that took risk. Without having that kind of support from the Broads, we wouldn’t have been positioned to take that on.”

Moreover, Gabriel said the institute “invested early in starting to sequence the COVID virus to try to find those variants of concern you hear about.” The sequencing will help scientists track the spread of variants.

Even before the pandemic, however, the institute had become a major force in the research community.

“Eli Broad’s philanthropy helped make specific scientific discoveries possible, and he also helped bring about a powerful approach to biomedical research, generally,” said Dr. Todd Golub, director of the Broad Institute.

His death is “really a huge loss for the whole world. He was a giant in so many ways,” Golub added.

Part of that legacy, Golub said, is that it was clear from the start “that Eli and Edye had faith in early career scientists and young people with big ideas. That’s not always the case. Sometimes there’s the tendency to gravitate toward the most established leaders in the field. Eli and Edye were drawn to really young scientists, sometimes scientists in training who had big, bold ideas.”

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The couple previously had been best known for arts and cultural philanthropy in Los Angeles. When they decided to use their wealth for medical research, the Broads initially considered trying to create a powerhouse consortium in California among that state’s universities.

Eli Broad told the Globe in 2003 that they changed their mind during visits to Cambridge and from their conversations with Eric S. Lander, who then directed the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, which he had founded.

“Edye and I made this gift because we believe that biomedical research is uniquely poised to revolutionize the understanding and treatment of disease,” Broad told the Globe that year, when the Broad Institute was founded with the couple’s first $100 million gift.

Lander, the Broad Institute’s founding director, tweeted that “getting to partner for two decades with Eli and Edye to create and nurture a new kind of collaborative research community — spanning two universities and five hospitals, empowering young scientists to tackle big challenges — was exhilarating. Their biomedical philanthropy, at the Broad and elsewhere, has already had enormous impact and will ultimately affect millions of lives.”

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Beyond the national and global impact of Broad’s research philanthropy, before and during the pandemic, his generosity also touched individual lives and families.

Prabal Chakrabarti, a Federal Reserve Bank of Boston executive vice president, learned about the Broad’s cutting-edge work under the most wrenching of circumstances, after his daughter, 7-year-old Sajni, was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable brain tumor — diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG.

Chakrabarti spoke with Lexington biotech Agenus, which agreed to try to make the first personalized immunotherapy vaccine for DIPG. But Agenus first needed someone to quickly do special genomic sequencing of Sajni’s brain tumor. That process is usually time-consuming, but Broad researchers agreed to do the work and completed the sequencing in about a week, just before Christmas in 2016, Chakrabarti recalled.

Sajni ended up getting three infusions of the experimental vaccine. Although it didn’t save Sajni, who died in July 2017, a month before she would have turned 9, “the Broad gave us a shot at that, and I’m grateful to them,” said Chakrabarti.

Since then, the Broad has established the Sajni Chakrabarti Fund for DIPG, which has raised about $250,000, he said. The institute is using the money to test more than 6,000 approved medicines and experimental compounds that the Broad has collected in a “drug repurposing hub” for unrecognized cancer-fighting properties on DIPG cell lines.

“They might have this long-term orientation, but they have people who want to do stuff now,” Chakrabarti said of the Broad’s researchers. “That’s the mark of intelligence. They’re able to work on the now and work on the future at the same time.”

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The Broad Institute’s founding mission was to use insights from the Human Genome Project to advance the treatment of diseases.

A cofounder of homebuilding pioneer Kaufman and Broad Inc., Eli Broad later launched financial services giant SunAmerica Inc., and had devoted most of his time to philanthropy for more than two decades.

In Los Angeles, where he had lived for much of his life, Broad and his wife used their fortune to shape the city’s arts and cultural life, financing museums and performance venues there, as well as funding education initiatives that helped schools in California and across the nation.

He told Harvard Magazine in 2003 that he and his wife chose Cambridge as the site for the Broad Institute for the simple reason that “the science is more important than the geography. There is no place in America, or elsewhere in the world, we believe, that has the combined scientific quality and leadership that’s here in Cambridge.”

Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist and medical geneticist who is an institute member of the Broad and a professor at Harvard University, said the Broads “gave this money that was designed to be catalytic — to allow scientists to go in new directions and stimulate new discoveries, from cancer to infectious disease to heart disease to a lot of immune disorders and beyond, to allow new fields of study to be born.”

The uniqueness of the institute is such that for those who work there, “you hear about this idea of a ‘Broadie,’ " she said, adding that “there is a really keen sense when you’re at the Broad that you have a mission and a mandate to make the world better through science.”

A previous version of this story gave an incorrect name for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com. Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.