18 May 2022

Capping a Two-Year First at HBS: Inaugural Cohort of MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences Program Showcase Their Work


New diagnostic options for preeclampsia, a condition affecting pregnant women in the last trimester that is characterized by dangerously high blood pressure. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for communication through speech. A platform that expands upon existing CAR-T cell therapies, which are cancer therapies that harness the human immune system to fight cancer. The antidepressant potential of psilocybin, a psychedelic compound also known as “magic mushrooms.” These are just some of the topics that were presented during the 2022 MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences Capstone event held recently.

Students making up the first ever MS-MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences cohort, graduating later this month, showcased their work to a diverse audience of Harvard faculty, physicians, students and alumni who are interested in both the life sciences and business, as well as partners and family who were proud of their loved one’s accomplishments. The students gave their presentations in an MBA classroom like the ones they spent so much of the last two years in, and former Dean Nitin Nohria, instrumental in launch of the joint MS/MBA programs, was also in attendance.

Former Dean Nitin Nohria was in attendance at the MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences Capstone event.

“Each student worked with both science and business advisors as part of the capstone project and it was gratifying to see these esteemed advisors in the audience, proudly supporting our students,” commented Jill Fadule, HBS director of joint programs. “Some of the advisors were on the HBS campus for the first time and all indicated a strong desire to support future capstone projects.”

A joint degree with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) and Harvard Medical School (HMS) through the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (HSCRB), the MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences program builds upon students’ existing biotech and life sciences knowledge and equips them with the latest business and scientific insights. This empowers them to lead, consult or invest in transformative organizations that will advance new drug discoveries and therapeutics.

While humans have used psilocybin for medicinal and spiritual reasons for thousands of years, and recent studies have shown its ability to help depression in humans, we still lack a complete biological understanding of how psilocybin affects the brain. “An investment in psilocybin research has considerable benefits but is not without risk,” says Katie Dinan (MS/MBA 2022) about her capstone topic. “The US is suffering from a mental health crisis, and the most commonly prescribed antidepressants have been the mainstay for over 30 years—there is a great clinical need for new and improved treatments, and such innovation will accordingly have huge market potential.”

“This project was a fantastic way to explore a topic of interest from all different angles,” she continued. “It felt like such a fitting end to our time in the MS/MBA program, as we wore both scientific and business hats in our diligence and presented to an audience with a range of expertise.”

Jamie Solimano (MBA 2022) with her two science advisors: Lee Rubin and Feodor Price from the Rubin Lab at Harvard.

“We very much enjoyed seeing the students culminate their academic work, combining both the science and business aspects of their training, on a topic of their choosing for the capstone projects,” said Bill Anderson, HSCRB associate director of education and senior lecturer. “We heard a variety of topics, ranging from targeting the microbiome to identifying new types of psychiatric medicines. All in all, it was a wonderful experience and set a terrific bar for our future cohorts.”

For her capstone project, Toria Justicz (MS/MBA 2022) was interested in a topic in the women’s health space, and preeclampsia particularly, because it affects a meaningful proportion of pregnant women and doctors have extremely limited options for diagnosing and treating the condition. Looking back on her work, Justicz remarked, “While I enjoyed diving deep into a topic I’m passionate about, I found it particularly rewarding to work with Dr. Tom McElrath, a practicing OB/GYN at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and HBS Professor Ariel Stern. Together we explored the various clinical and economic considerations for bringing new diagnostic options to market.”

“In their capstone projects, students joined critical approaches to science and thoughtful considerations of business implications, focused on projects of their choice,” said Mark Fishman, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology and one of the faculty co-chairs of the MS/MBA program. “The sophisticated union of these two fields proved an exciting day for students and faculty alike and showed the power of this approach.”

Dominic Akandwanaho (MBA 2022) giving a presentation.

Nora Rabah (MS/MBA 2022) was paired with Dynamic Cell Therapies (formerly Raqia Therapeutics), a Pagliuca Harvard Life Lab company. The company has developed a binary activated T-cell platform that modifies the way the CAR-T therapy binds to an individual's tumor, with the goal of allowing for more control over the dosing and increasing the likelihood of efficacy. Her task was to wear the hat of a biotech venture capitalist and assess the technology, the potential impact, and anticipated milestones and risks involved.

“Learning to examine a scientific technology, and understand its potential risks and benefits, is a crucial skill in the biotech world, so we allocate capital to therapies that push the boundaries of science with the potential to be transformative treatments for patients with unmet medical needs,” Rabah said. “The MS/MBA program has allowed me to combine scientific curiosity with managerial skills to build a foundation as a future leader in the life sciences. I personally am excited about commercializing therapeutics once they have demonstrated efficacy in late-stage human trials and am motivated to find solutions to the access and affordability obstacles we face today.”

HBS Professor Amitabh Chandra, who is the faculty co-chair of the joint MS/MBA program in the life-sciences, noted, “The MS/MBA in life sciences leverages Harvard’s preeminent position in science and business, and is built around the insight that transformational medicines often come from fundamental scientific discoveries. Our first cohort of students showcased their advanced training and management expertise in their capstone projects. These projects required students to discuss the scientific rationale for their project and develop a business plan to move the scientific discovery to market. They were masterfully executed, highlighting the incredible effort and resourcefulness of the students, and the exquisite resources, advisors, and mentors that the Harvard ecosystem provides access to.”

Students watching a presentation.

While still in its infancy, brain-computer interfaces have already shown clinical results, enabling tetraplegic patients to control a robotic arm simply through thought. Claudia Pienica’s (MS/MBA 2022) capstone explored the possibility of leveraging the latest technological developments in BCIs to restore speech in patients with locked-in-syndrome and progressive aphasias caused by ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“It is an exciting field that has the potential to significantly enhance patients' lives and change what it means to be disabled,” Pienica said. “Communication, which is at the core of what it means to be human and have relationships, is lost by too many patients who still have the mental capacity to communicate but are betrayed by their body's ability to do so.”

After the students’ presentations, they had a chance to reflect on their time at Harvard and meet with the faculty and advisors in an informal setting at a reception on the HBS campus.

“The day offered us an excellent opportunity to celebrate and evaluate the learnings, research, and recommendations of our inaugural MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences cohort,” said Irene Pak, HBS assistant director of joint programs, summarizing the culmination of two years-worth of student discovery.

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