A Spirit of Collaboration
Over the past few decades, the more scientists have learned about the insidious disease known as cancer, the more they've unearthed its complexities. In fact, cancer is a misnomer of sorts because cancer includes more than 100 different types, including pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Even within the category of breast cancer, researchers have discovered a variety of subtypes, like estrogen-receptor positive, HER2 positive and triple-negative. This is all to say that cancer research is not for the faint-hearted. Finding a cure for cancer is neither simple nor easy. And it's certainly not something one researcher can achieve alone.
But what if it were possible to bring together the best scientific minds in cancer research across different disciplines to collaborate and share research with each other? The result—a synergy of scientists sharing data and tools from their respective institutions to creatively and collectively solve problems, which could potentially mean faster cures to patients. This is the unique concept behind the Institute Without Walls—a collaborative group of world-class scientists funded by the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation (SWCRF).
The idea of the Institute Without Walls came from Samuel Waxman, M.D., who is the Founder and Scientific Director of the SWCRF. He based the model upon his personal experience collaborating with other researchers around the world to find a cure for a rare form of leukemia known as acute promyelocytic leukemia nearly two decades ago. This once lethal disease now has a survival rate of about 95 percent due to a minimally toxic therapy, which combines arsenic and a vitamin A derivative.
"After that, it became clear to me that collaboration is the most critical means," said Waxman. "A very defined collaboration with a mission can bring treatment from science more rapidly."
a culture of collaboration
Since our inception in 1976, the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation has awarded more than $80 million to support the work of 200 researchers across the globe. The Foundation was one of the first cancer research organizations to collaborate with scientists in China during the 1980s, funding senior-level Chinese researchers to study in Waxman's lab at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Over the years, the Foundation has built upon that relationship, forging a partnership between Waxman-funded scientists all over the world and scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Hematology (SIH) in China.
"We have a unique program called the Co-PI program, where we try to bring together western scientists with young researchers at the SIH who are all working on research related to altering gene expressions," said Waxman.
In 2010, the Emerald Foundation, Inc. awarded a three-year grant of $375,000 to support Waxman-funded researchers who will be working with scientists in China to eradicate the leukemia stem cell—the root cause of all leukemias.
But collaboration in itself does not necessarily yield rewarding results. Which is why the Waxman Foundation instituted a rigorous peer-review process in order to identify the best collaborative research for funding.
Each year, as part of the grant process, the Foundation invites every National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in the country to apply for a research grant. Potential applicants must compete within their institutions since only one grant proposal from an institution can be submitted. Applicants must express a desire to collaborate with other researchers, have received prior funding from the National Institutes of Health and share the Foundation's research interests—understanding what causes a cell to divide and mutate into a cancer cell and correcting those defects in order to reprogram the cell to do a job and die selectively.
In the spirit of transparency, investigators who receive funding must present their findings annually to the Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board. In the spring, the Foundation convenes its annual Scientific Review over two days to determine the merits of each research study and to determine future funding. In 2010, the Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board recommended approximately 20 grants for funding. To date, the Foundation has invested more than $2 million in research during this fiscal year.
The Waxman Foundation's research spans the spectrum of cancer—from children to adults; from men to women; and from those who are newly diagnosed to those with more advanced disease.
"We support many different cancer indications including blood, brain, breast, liver, lung, melanoma, and pancreatic," said Waxman. "Our funded-scientists are located all over the world, including in Canada, China, England, Israel and the U.S."
Investigators who become part of the Institute Without Walls come from multi-disciplinary backgrounds. Some researchers are experts in basic science and translational medicine while others are experts in developing therapies.
"This unique combination represents a passionate group of cancer researchers who are committed to working together," said Jonathan Licht, M.D., an Associate Scientific Director of the SWCRF.
The results of this unique collaboration have led to some major breakthroughs in cancer research. Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., an Associate Scientific Director of the SWCRF, recently completed two Phase II clinical trials in late-stage lung cancer and submitted the results for publication. His research in lung cancer has been replicated in a larger scale study at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and represents promising research in a disease that is the leading-cause of cancer deaths.
Recently, Waxman and colleagues published important research on a type of breast cancer that mostly affects young women and women of African descent. This type, known as triple-negative breast cancer, is particularly resistant to hormonal treatment and therefore has a poor prognosis and high recurrence rate. In this ground-breaking study, researchers were able to sensitize these cancer cells to Tamoxifen, which may expand treatment options in the future for women with triple-negative breast cancer.
The cancer researchers who are part of the Foundation's Institute Without Walls are working hard to help bridge the gap between lab science and the patient.
"Reflecting upon a proud history of collaboration, we have achieved great strides in cancer research for 36 years," said Waxman. "Moving forward, the Foundation is committed to building upon our dynamism and innovation to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families all over the world."
last updated 8/6/12