I am Harvard Catalyst: Aaron Cypess

Breaking into the Cycle. An MD/PhD uses a Pilot Grant and KL2 award to launch his research.


Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD
HMS Assistant Professor of Medicine
Joslin Diabetes Center

Research Summary:

Dr. Cypess studies the metabolism of brown adipose tissue (aka "brown fat") in adults to see whether it can contribute to the treatment of obesity.

Translational Activity:

Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD

Tell us a little about yourself and what you study.

I am an MD/PhD at Joslin Diabetes Center studying brown adipose tissue, or brown fat. Even five years ago, conventional wisdom held that adults had no functional brown fat, that we lost it when we grew up. We now know that adults actually do have a layer of active brown fat, capable of burning several hundreds of calories per day, in the upper body. I want to understand its biology and see if there is a possibility of using brown fat as a way of treating obesity, for which we have no pharmacological treatment options currently.

How does Harvard Catalyst fit into your research and career?

One of the best things
to come out so far for
the clinical researcher is
the IRB Cede
Review Request form.

Since Harvard Catalyst was established in 2008, I have applied for and received a Pilot Grant (with Yu-Hua Tseng, PhD) and a KL2 award, tapped the advice of the Research Navigators and the Imaging and Biostatistics consultants, and used the IRB Cede Review Request.

As a junior faculty member with an MD/PhD, one of the most difficult times in your career is after you've finished your degrees and residency, internship, and fellowship, when you basically have a year to figure out how to integrate it all and start something that will let you get K23 or K08 support. The KL2 fills that gap; it provides the funding and the salary, which is non-trivial, so that you have the protected time to do the research projects. And that's incredibly valuable. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be here.

How are you going to get money if you don't have any papers, and how do you get any papers if you don't have experiments?

The consultations have also been essential. Many questions come out of your research, and no one institution is big enough to have the resources you need to answer them all. For instance, I wanted to better understand how brown fat is distributed in the body. But it's a diffuse, widely spread tissue, and it's inconsistent from person to person, and even within the same person, all of which makes it very difficult to image. And so the imaging consultants were able to help me work out a way to do it. And you need to know how many people to include and how to analyze appropriately the kind of data you are gathering, so you need the biostatistical consultation.

One of the best things to come out so far for the clinical researcher is the IRB Cede Review Request form. Here's an example: I received a call from someone at MGH who wanted to collaborate on a clinical brown fat study. Normally we would have had to go through both the MGH and Joslin IRBs, even though all of the work will actually be happening at MGH. We put in the ceded review request, and had our approval in two weeks. At this point, I have collaborators at MGH, Brigham and Women's, MIT, Beth Israel, Children's, and Joslin, all because Harvard Catalyst is encouraging these things to happen.

With our Pilot Grant and KL2 data…we applied for [an NIH Challenge Grant], had an incredible score, and got the award.

The resources I accessed directly contributed to two successful grant awards. In 2009, I was awarded a K23 grant on brown fat metabolism and was a co-investigator on one of the 200 NIH Challenge Grants. The NIDDK announced that it was interested in funding Challenge Grants on brown fat. With the Pilot Grant and KL2 data, we already had a demonstrated interest in this, and we already had a paper coming out in the New England Journal of Medicine. So we applied for the grant, had an incredible score, and got the award.

What insights can you offer other researchers?

To me there are three parts of the cycle – the funding, the experiments, and the publications. And they all reinforce each other. But it's a cycle that you have to be able to jump in on somewhere, because how are you going to get money if you don't have any papers, and how do you get any papers if you don't have experiments?

Harvard Catalyst has an enormous number of resources that you should know about, provides many of the features you need in order to be able to get into the cycle, and also sets an ethos, that we all are part of one large institution, we all should be working together. It's a community that you want to be part of.

Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD

Resources Accessed

"I am Harvard Catalyst" is a series of spotlights on clinical/translational investigators, showcasing examples of innovation, collaboration, community engagement, or professional development that have been supported by Harvard Catalyst.