Kenneth Chien, director, Cardiovascular Research Center, Massachusetts General Hospital
Kenneth Chien likens science to a game of chess — those who go far not only see 10–20 moves ahead, they visualize the entire next game. By that definition Chien, an MD-PhD, is biology's Bobby Fischer. (see CV).
Although Chien's motivation came from his medical training in Texas, his career blossomed at San Diego. His early move to use the mouse as the model organism for physiology raised some eyebrows. “A number of people thought that the mouse wouldn't be a good model,” Chien says.
But the bold move turned out to be the correct one. Chien's work is already a classic study of mice and men. Moving on to disease, he built double knock-out mice to identify a defect critical to heart-failure progression. But it's his most recent discovery, of stem cells (mouse, rat and human) specialized to grow heart muscle, that may provide a cell-therapy approach to paediatric cardiac disease.
Some of his early moves depended as much on serendipity as strategy. Receiving a phone call to collaborate on a “screwed-up mouse heart” started him on the path of mouse models and began a decade's collaboration with scientists such as Ron Evans at San Diego's Salk Institute. This collaboration led to a joint training scheme and award allowing students to study at both institutions.
Chien's collaborations stretch across oceans and ideologies. In addition to maintaining partnerships with operations as varied as Sweden's Karolinska Institute and the San Francisco biotech company Genentech, Chien founded a sister institute to the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Peking University in China.
His new position, as director of the research centre and as Charles Sanders Endowed Chair in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, will begin the next chess game for Chien this September. He says that the new position is a wonderful chance to study mouse embryonic stem cells in the context of human disease.
Having received his first degree at Harvard College, the move brings Chien back to his roots in more ways than one. He will also capitalize on clinical training from his early days. Indeed, for Chien, advancing cutting-edge therapies for cardiovascular disease while continuing to blaze a trail in molecular cardiology is the ultimate check and mate.