Our Research

For nearly 40 years, Whitehead Institute researchers have transformed the world’s fundamental understanding of biology.

Three men look at a piece of paper in a lab.


Whitehead Institute researchers discovered the first human oncogene and the keystone molecule of the mTOR protein pathway, and created the first human chimeric mouse model; helped drive the Human Genome Project and develop the field of RNA biology and therapeutics; and redefined our understanding of the Y chromosome and of regenerative biology. Their discoveries continue to lead to the formation of dozens of biotech and pharmaceutical companies, underpinning the development process for scores of new treatments and diagnostics. And they are acclaimed for conceiving and developing research methods and tools that have advanced the conduct of science around the world.

Whitehead Institute’s innovative science drives continuing progress toward preventing, diagnosing, and treating conditions ranging from cancer and diabetes to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis to HIV, coronavirus, and Zika. Your support can meaningfully advance our pioneering studies in any of the following areas.

Research Areas

The Whitehead Initiative on Biology, Health, and Climate Change (WIBHC) seeks to expand our knowledge about detrimental impacts on health, agriculture, and other essential natural systems – and  spark new biomedical and biotech interventions that will help address them. 

Cancer hijacks a cell’s normal processes for its own ends, sidestepping the body’s immune system, and, too often, evading even the most promising treatments. But our researchers, who helped to define the field of cancer research, are driving a new foundation of knowledge for innovative diagnostics and therapeutics for malignancies including blood, brain, breast, and pancreatic cancers.

Plants are crucial to human wellbeing—as sources of food, as the basis of many current and potential drugs, and for limiting and mitigating climate change. Our plant biology researchers are driving advancements that hold the promise of major practical impact on agriculture, conservation, and medical treatment.

Metabolism is the sum of life-sustaining chemical reactions in cells, including those that create energy and build cellular structures. But malfunctioning metabolism can contribute to many diseases. Our researchers are at the forefront of efforts to investigate metabolic function and understand how it contributes to both disease and aging. And they are pinpointing ways to intervene in metabolic processes to prevent and treat serious illness.

From coronavirus and Ebola to Lyme and toxoplasmosis, infectious disease causes illness and economic setbacks around the globe. The disease-causing microbes and viruses can be easily spread; and no effective treatments exist for many of these diseases. Our researchers are developing a deeper understanding of how these microorganisms function, laying the groundwork for new strategies for preventing, diagnosing, and treating the diseases they cause.

A fundamental biomedical challenge is understanding how the brain and nervous system develop and function—and what causes developmental disorders such as autism and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Our researchers are creating ingenious approaches, tools, and model systems for studying both healthy and diseased neurological cells—and using them to drive discoveries that could lead to new diagnostics and treatments.

Proteins do much of the work inside the human body, supporting the structure, function, regulation, and repair of organs, tissues and cells. Our researchers are conducting multifaceted investigations of the role that specific proteins play in disease. For example, they are studying how signaling proteins help cancer cells avoid immune cells and how protein dysfunction in metabolism may promote diabetes. 

Humans begin as one cell—packed full of organelles and biological mechanisms—which divides countless times to create bodies comprising trillions of cells. Whitehead Institute researchers are investigating exactly what happens when cells divide and when they differentiate into specific cell types; and what happens when those processes go awry and cause disease. They are pioneers in understanding how stem cells function and how they can be used for research. 

Our researchers have long been trailblazers in genetics and genomics, making the largest private-institution contribution to the Human Genome Project; discovering the first oncogene and the first tumor suppressor gene; and continuing to make major discoveries. They are advancing knowledge on how genetic instructions are decoded and carried out; how those processes go awry to cause conditions ranging from autism and Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis and cancer; and how female and male biologies “read” genomes differently, leading to significant differences in health and disease.