The office of M.G. Finn in the Molecular Science and Engineering Building blends chemistry and jazz. Amid an extensive library of science literature and textbooks is a large photograph of jazz musicians posing in 1950s Harlem. The black-and-white photo evokes creativity, innovation, and inspiration; it hangs directly across Finn’s desk and occupies a prominent space in his field of vision. The juxtaposition of keen intellectual pursuits against avid enthusiasm for improvisation reflects Finn’s approach to scientific leadership.
Finn’s resume is as impressive as it is long. His research spans far and wide within the fields of chemistry, biology, and materials science. A lifelong passion for science has blazed his trail to the Pediatric Technology Center (PTC) at Georgia Tech, where he recently became the first professor to hold the James A. Carlos Family Chair for Pediatric Technology. The newly endowed chair was made possible in part by the generosity of Georgia Tech alumnus James A. Carlos, the vice chairman of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Foundation and one of many corporate and community leaders in Atlanta who are dedicated to improving pediatric medicine.
“I am truly honored. The chair comes with significant resources that aren’t tied to any particular project, allowing us to initiate and continue important research in pediatric medicine,” Finn says. “The chair also brings high-profile recognition to the work being done thanks to PTC,” adds Finn, who also chairs the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
PTC is a research center established through a pediatric research alliance between Georgia Tech, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), Emory Healthcare, and Morehouse School of Medicine. As PTC’s chief scientific officer, Finn orchestrates a vast pool of talent. Like the quintessential jazzman, Finn and his team bring together artists who, in ensemble, create innovative music that challenges the limits of conventional thinking. However, his “artists” are professionals in the healthcare and STEM fields, members of the Georgia Tech-CHOA-Emory community, and their “music” saves lives right here in Atlanta.
“Getting the right people in the same room is the hard part,” Finn says. “When you’ve gotten that far, that’s when the excitement really takes off.”
How exactly does PTC save lives? It starts with lofty intentions, such as the PTC’s goal to end child deaths in Georgia due to sickle cell anemia by 2025. Sickle cell anemia is only one of many diseases that originate from the mutation of a single gene. “Roughly 6,000 single-gene related diseases have been identified so far,” says Finn, “and these diseases can, in principle, be cured by a process called single-gene editing, whereby the offending gene is restored to its natural function.”
The molecular machinery that edits specific genes has already been developed; the current challenge lies in actually delivering it. Overcoming this challenge through research and testing is just one role PTC and Finn’s lab have assumed.
REVOLUTIONIZING PEDIATRIC MEDICINE
Under the leadership of a council comprising representatives of the partner organizations, PTC is developing technologies in the fields of smartphone medical apps, 3D printing, regenerative medicine, and pediatric medical devices, among others. Finn heads this council and draws from his experience as a research scientist to recommend the allocation of resources.
PTC initiatives that promise to revolutionize pediatric medical science excite Sherry N. Farrugia, PTC’s director of operations and one of Finn’s colleagues on the council. “Using stem cells to repair lethal arrhythmias in infant hearts, developing implants that will grow with a child, creating interactive 3D images of a patient’s heart to help surgeons determine the effects of a procedure before they ever step into the operating room—these are just a few of the projects happening through the PTC,” Farrugia says.
In the five years since the PTC’s inception, this intersection of medicine, science, and engineering has led to great strides in pediatric medicine. For this reason, Finn believes that PTC should aim to establish Atlanta as the international hub for groundbreaking pediatric medical technology innovations.
“The people and facilities in Atlanta make working with pharmaceutical companies a natural fit,” Finn says. “We are also uniquely suited to work with individuals and smaller organizations to bring their discoveries to market. The partnerships could be mutually beneficial; the strengths of one could bolster the weaknesses of the other.”
To researchers joining his lab, Finn likes to say, “Be fearless, and take risks that might seem a little crazy.” These are words a jazz instrumentalist might say to inspire fellow musicians to reach new levels of improvisation. The same words have guided Finn himself and keep him pushing the boundaries of his science.
Science Communications Intern
College of Sciences