Mount Sinai Health System

Dennis S. Charney, Mount Sinai Health System

Dennis S. Charney, M.D.

Research That
Changes Medicine

Editors’ Note

Dr. Dennis Charney is also the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a world expert in the neurobiology and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders. His career began in 1981 at Yale, where, within nine years, he rose from Assistant Professor to Professor of Psychiatry, a position he held from 1990 to 2000. While there, he chaired the NIMH Board of Scientific Counselors. In 2000, NIMH recruited Charney to lead the Mood and Anxiety Disorder Research Program and the Experimental Therapeutics and Pathophysiology Branch. That year he was also elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. His scientific research has been honored by every major award in his field. In 2004, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai recruited Charney as Dean of Research. In 2007, he became the Dean of the School and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs of the Medical Center. In 2013, he was named to his current post. Charney has written more than 700 publications, including groundbreaking scientific papers, chapters, and books.

What makes the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai so special?

It has to do with not being a part of a major university. We consist of a medical school that trains medical students. We also train scientists – Ph.D. students – and doctors and their specialty house staff, and post-doctoral students who are becoming researchers.

We have a seamless relationship with our hospital, so we have one board of trustees, and the mission of the hospital and the school are in sync.

When we raise money, we’re doing it to change medicine and to recruit scientists whose mission is to discover new ways of treating human disease, as well as to build clinical programs in which we treat those diseases.

We’re not competing with the priorities of a major university. We’re focused like a laser beam on research that changes medicine and on delivering exceptional care to those who need it most.

Also, the CEO, Dr. Kenneth L. Davis, and I have been best friends for 30 years, which is unique in medicine. We have a very generous board of trustees, so philanthropy makes a difference. The CEO and I have built an environment in which creative ideas are valued, innovation is the coin of the realm, and challenging tradition is the norm. This allows us to achieve things that were not thought possible, be it delivering care to the underserved or coming up with research findings that have the possibility of fundamentally improving treatments for the most serious diseases.

The most important part of my job is identifying great talent and providing the environment that allows the main limitation to be their imagination and not resources.

Are physician-scientists harder to find?

The key to great science is coming up with an idea that nobody else has had. That’s creativity, which is a different kind of intelligence.

Most physician-scientists now are mainly scientists, because in order to achieve true scientific breakthroughs, they can’t be spending more of their time in the clinic. The value of the physician-scientists is that they learn medicine, and that context helps their science.

How critical is entrepreneurship and information technology, and how have those become part of the culture of how the institution operates?

We’re in the midst of a revolution in medicine whose potential has not yet been realized. This, in part, relates to our ability to sequence the human genome – 10 or 15 years ago, it cost $1 billion to sequence a single genome and now it costs well under $1,000.

We’re identifying genes that place people at risk for a variety of diseases, but generally we have not yet taken advantage of that to come up with new treatments.

The obstacles to this include the need to process big data analytics, which is new to medicine. We must have the availability of high-performance computing to handle the enormous volumes of data, and the data scientists to manage it. Data science has developed into a new field because of the enormous amounts of data coming out on the human genome, which has to be analyzed.

The best places have to link data scientists, who come from a tradition of mathematics, and physicists who are developing new ways of sequencing the human genome, with biological scientists and physicians who bring the knowledge of disease and how those diseases are treated. This is what we’re doing at Mount Sinai.

Within the health system, your focus has been on developing the structure for complementary clinical institutes that will serve as centers of excellence. Would you talk about that structure and why it’s critical when looking at the future of medicine?

The clinical institutes include a diabetes institute, a clinical neuroscience institute, a cardiovascular institute, and others.

To provide the best care to a patient with these types of diseases, we need a team that can involve more than one specialty. For example, if we’re going to treat people with diabetes, we want to have folks who are experts on diabetes on the team. However, those individuals with the disease might also have issues with their cardiovascular system, their eyes or their kidneys, and we don’t want to have silos where it’s hard for a patient to go from their diabetes experts to their other doctors.

The idea of clinical institutes is to provide the kind of integration so the patient doesn’t have to shop or reach doctors – it’s one-stop shopping, the doctors are talking to each other, and they’re developing the best treatment plan for the whole patient.

Why did you feel the partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was important and has that partnership evolved the way you had hoped?

Rensselaer hasn’t had a close relationship with a medical school and we don’t have an engineering school, so coming together is a win-win proposition. Our collaboration includes work around new devices for surgery, tissue engineering, IT as it relates to new apps, and new sensors that allow us to monitor the patient from the home and get actionable information into the doctor’s office.

Exciting developments are taking place every day with the advances that have taken place across so many different areas through cutting-edge technology. For someone who has seen it, are you still surprised and excited by what goes on there?

The excitement is always pushing the envelope and trying to do better. We’re still at that stage at Mount Sinai. Our healthcare system has given us unique opportunities in terms of training and research, and delivery of healthcare to the patients who need it most.

We have a motto at Mount Sinai – another day, another breakthrough – and that still holds.•