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Innovator Spotlight: Marie Csete Leads HMRI Into Future Health Technologies

By Michelle Garrett — July 29, 2016
There’s lots of talk these days about shattering glass ceilings. In 2015, Dr. Marie Csete was appointed the first female President & Chief Scientist of the Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI). Csete recently sat down with Innovate Pasadena to talk about HMRI’s breakthrough research, a pivotal college moment that taught her an invaluable life lesson, and how she strives to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

What is HMRI’s story?

HMRI is a non-profit research foundation founded in 1952 by physicians interested in neuroscience research. Today, we change lives through multi-disciplinary, patient focused research. Over the course of the last 60 years, HMRI’s most impactful work has been through our imaging research program. Our Advanced Imaging and Spectroscopy Center was pivotal in developing chemical imaging for the brain. Not only is this a great past achievement, but it sets the stage for the future of Magnetic Resonance (MR) research. Our Cardiovascular, Neurosciences, Metabolism, Tissue Engineering, Liver and Immunology programs all use imaging and spectroscopy as a tool to further our collaborative research efforts. In 2014 HMRI re-organized and has a new strategic plan. Part of that plan includes construction of our new building which will have wet labs, an auditorium, and office space for our clinical medical practice. Because of our clinical experience, HMRI physicians are able to study patients in ways that go beyond what can be done in a regular doctor’s office.

What sort of research projects has HMRI conducted? Any notable findings?

HMRI is widely known for the development of the hydrocephalus shunt used for relieving accumulated water in the brain. It was developed in 1954 and is still in use today. Around the world, HMRI’s chemical imaging research is having an impact. We are pushing the envelope and asking questions to see if we can apply our findings even further into medicine. Questions we’re asking and exploring include things like the feasibility of biopsies without needles. The development of medical devices and related technologies has been a strong suit for HMRI. One such example is the coil currently used in the diagnosis of prostate cancer. We are also in the process of developing a device to treat sleep apnea. Our neural engineering group has set safety standards for neuromodulating (electrical stimulation) devices, and worked for example, on the electronics for cochlear implants. HMRI’s work hones in on the earliest stage of a disease before a patient is symptomatic. For example, our neurosciences group is investigating root causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. By studying changes in lipids in spinal fluid, our scientists will be able to make a calculated guess as to who will age with a healthy brain, or not. Our findings indicate that replacing the loss of healthy lipids and reducing inflammatory lipids in spinal fluid may be a very good approach to change the course of the disease. These studies all start while the subjects are normal- cognition and memory intact.

What’s your vision for HMRI in the next few years?

Our vision is to be the best patient focused research organization of its size, anywhere. We also endeavor to be the center of a node within an innovation community. We feel we can do that because we speak both languages- basic research and applied medical research. HMRI is fortunate to have very accomplished physicians and PhD scientists on staff. We can really help grow the eco-system here in Pasadena.

What do you want the innovation community to know about HMRI?

People bandy around the word multi-disciplinary all the time. But, we actually do multidisciplinary better than anyone else out there. People can come to us with a problem and instead of having just one really smart person figuring out the solution, at HMRI several research disciplines brainstorm providing a different output (often surprising) than I have seen in other settings. We are also very capable of doing outpatient clinical studies and trials cheaper than at a university. Our new building will be a fantastic space to do that.

What is a moment in your life that has most shaped the person you are today, and what meaning do you give it in hindsight?

I have a very strong memory of a conversation had as a freshman in college. I was a member of the second class of women to ever matriculate at Princeton University. I auditioned for the orchestra and when I showed up to the first rehearsal I happened upon an argument between the conductor and another musician. I assumed it was related to my selection as first chair so I told the conductor I didn’t care and could just play second. I’ll never forget what came next. The conductor took me aside and said “You’re going to have a hard enough time as it is being here; you deserve this.” It was an adult moment and an eye opener for the possible behaviors I might have to deal with in a competitive world.

Which area of science excites you most?

I’m excited for the future of non-invasive imaging. Let me explain why. In traditional academics, students are encouraged down a narrow path of study to succeed. That being said, a broad background is needed to truly appreciate what’s happening in non-invasive imaging. When I was handed a world-class imaging research group I had little background in imaging, despite having a broad background in medicine and science. I began reading textbooks to familiarize myself in this area. Our research in imaging utilizes all disciplines to understand the drivers of disease in the broadest sense. Not to mention there’s also a real opportunity to educate the public about why this field of medicine is important.

What was the last book you read?

I’m in the middle of The Martian. It was given to me by a friend who works at JPL.

You work and live in Pasadena. What do you enjoy about living and working in Pasadena?

Pasadena is a walkable city. Once HMRI’s new building opens I won’t ever have to get in a car again. In Pasadena you can walk just about anywhere- to the theater, great restaurants, Rose Bowl, etc. It’s just remarkable.
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