Caltech research breakthroughs in human health
May 30, 2019

Caltech Launches Merkin Institute for Translational Research

A gift to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign from trustee Richard Merkin establishes the Richard N. Merkin Institute for Translational Research.

The new Merkin Institute will help Caltech scientists and engineers transform their breakthroughs into advances in human health. It will enhance resources for every step in translational science, from basic discovery through clinical collaboration and the introduction of new treatments.

“Above all, Richard Merkin believes in people,” says President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “The Merkin Institute for Translational Research will identify extraordinary researchers and provide them with the tools to realize the potential of their discoveries, amplifying Dr. Merkin’s lifelong vision for science and society.”

Richard Merkin, who is founder and chief executive officer of Heritage Provider Network, focuses his work and the bulk of his philanthropy on new paths to cures and to affordable, high-quality health care.

“We are on the cusp of an incredible new generation of medical science. I am hopeful that this Institute will encourage exponential improvements for society by accelerating the transfer of groundbreaking science from Caltech’s world class laboratories to the bedside. This may allow every family in America access to affordable health care,” Merkin says.

Research that Changes Medicine

“For a century, discoveries by Caltech faculty, students, and alumni have changed humanity’s understanding of life and illness,” says David Lee, chair of Caltech’s Board of Trustees. “These insights led to 10 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine. Now, as the Merkin Institute launches, we look forward to great scientific breakthroughs. We anticipate the invention of essential treatments, devices, tests, and approaches to health care.”

Today, more than 100 Caltech professors, from all six academic divisions, lead investigations with the potential to improve human health, as do researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA).

To maximize the clinical impact of this activity, Caltech convened a faculty committee to define a translational sciences and technology initiative in 2014. The Merkin Institute is the centerpiece of that vision, refined through external peer-review and dialogue with Merkin. The campus-wide institute will foster collaborations across organizations such as the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, the Beckman Institute at Caltech, and the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering, and will engage colleagues at hospitals and medical schools across the region and the nation.

How the Merkin Institute Will Accelerate Advances in Health Technology

The Merkin Institute will help Caltech researchers realize the full potential of their work to enable longer, healthier lives, by offering important new resources:

  • Eight Merkin Institute professorships and a leadership chair will nucleate an interactive, core group of Caltech leaders in health-related research.
  • A grant program will catalyze research that has the potential to impact disease prevention and health care. Merkin Institute grants will target high-risk research that offers the promise of advances in our understanding of health and disease, molecular medicine, device engineering, and medical diagnostics.
  • Shared instruments and facilities will support and connect research groups throughout campus.
  • New positions for physicians-in-residence will help researchers identify and solve pressing clinical problems. Entrepreneurs-in-residence will augment Caltech’s technology transfer program, which has helped Caltech entrepreneurs start more than 130 companies and currently supports approximately 1,800 active U.S. patents.
  • Support for multi-center collaborations and training programs will enhance Caltech’s partnerships with hospitals and medical organizations.
  • Workshops and short courses will educate investigators who wish to maximize the clinical impact of their work, helping scholars gain relevant skills, evaluate the translational potential of their research, and find essential financial support.

These investments are ideally timed, according to Barbara Wold, the Bren Professor of Molecular Biology and a member of the translational sciences faculty committee.

“Caltech’s great, unchanging strength is our capacity to make fundamental scientific breakthroughs and inventions that flow from them,” Wold says. “Those advances can drive big changes in medicine, but the path from a basic discovery to a treatment or medical device can be long and full of roadblocks. The new Merkin Institute promises to remove roadblocks and catalyze the best at each step: We make a discovery, relate the insight to human biology, develop the medical applications, and then mine data from precision medicine to drive new rounds of discovery. To me, the brilliance of Richard Merkin’s investment in Caltech is how it leverages our basic science to make the distance from breakthrough to patient treatment as short as possible.”

Richard Merkin’s Inspiration

Richard Merkin’s love of mathematics, his undergraduate major, has shaped his health-care career. While still a young emergency-room doctor, Merkin founded the Heritage Provider Network in the 1970s. The organization integrated all aspects of medical treatment and data management for its members in order to reduce the cost of excellent care, then an untested approach. With almost a million members today, it is the largest such network to be physician-owned and led.

Merkin advocates a stronger focus on cures, relative to care, in American medical spending. To that end, his philanthropy and volunteer service have advanced biomedical research. His gifts to institutions across the United States have advanced gene therapy, immunology, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, stem cell research, and emergency and tropical medicine. He is a board member and co-founder of the Milken Institute’s FasterCures center, which aims to help medical breakthroughs reach patients faster. At Caltech, he established professorships in mathematical finance and in mathematics, and, with his nonprofit, the Heritage Medical Research Institute, founded the Heritage Research Institute for the Advancement of Medicine and Science at Caltech in 2015, and renewed it in 2018.

Richard Merkin joined Caltech’s Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigators, President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, and Provost David Tirrell for a celebration in 2018. From left, Rosenbaum, Mikhail Shapiro, Sarah Reisman, Azita Emami, Merkin, Viviana Gradinaru, Rebecca Voorhees, Mitchell Guttman, Sarkis Mazmanian, and Tirrell.

His gifts in support of health care take unconventional approaches to spark change. He launched the $3 million Heritage Health Prize, a global competition that led to dramatic improvements in the ability to predict which patients are likely to be hospitalized and for how long. He also supported the Brookings Institution’s Richard Merkin Initiative to Advance Clinical Leadership in Delivery and Payment Reform, and enabled Western Governors University to offer a new bachelor’s program in health services coordination.

Merkin connected with Caltech through shared committee service with David Baltimore, Caltech President Emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology. Merkin was elected to Caltech’s Board of Trustees in 2007 and joined the Caltech Associates in 2008.

Caltech research breakthroughs in human health

Top image collage: Researchers across Caltech lead investigations with the potential to improve human health. Clockwise from top left: