Specialized Programs of Research Excellence: Moving Basic Research Discoveries into the Clinic
Since 1992, NCI's Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPOREs) have been instrumental in defining and culturing the field of translational research. The program's success results primarily from multidisciplinary teams of basic and applied researchers working together to move basic research discoveries into the clinic or, conversely, to determine the underlying mechanism of a clinical observation. As such, SPOREs have changed an important aspect of the cancer research model by breaking down communication barriers between investigators with diverse areas of expertise and focusing their collective attention on a single or related group of cancer sites. The overall program goal is to direct basic scientific discoveries toward human applications that have the potential to affect the prevention, detection, diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment of cancer in a particular organ site.
The SPORE program was conceived and implemented through a special $20 million appropriation from Congress in fiscal year 1992, representing a strategic response to the rapid expansion of cancer information being developed through basic research. At the time, no NCI funding mechanism focused exclusively on translational research; the SPORE program began as an experiment to promote interactions between basic and applied scientists and provide them with the flexibility to rapidly test new ideas and approaches.
Over the past 12 years, the program has grown from four organ sites to 14 and currently includes 56 SPOREs in breast, prostate, lung, gastrointestinal, ovarian, genitourinary, skin, brain, head and neck, lymphoma, leukemia, myeloma, pancreatic, and gynecological cancers. Unique features of SPOREs include their flexibility to change research direction to capitalize upon new translational opportunities, as well as their close ties to the patient advocate community.
Beginning in 2000, more emphasis has been placed upon the SPOREs to interact within and across organ sites. The SPORE network provides an excellent opportunity for cross-fertilization between different disciplines and enables translational goals to be quickly realized. Inter-SPORE activities are supported by administrative supplements to parent SPORE awards and are aimed largely toward the performance of early-phase clinical trials or biomarker validation studies. Many of these studies involve collaborations with other NCI networks, like the Cancer Genetics Network, the Cooperative Groups, and the NCI Intramural program. SPORE is also one of the first NCI programs to establish a public-private partnership with an outside funding organization. Specifically, the Avon Foundation has committed $20 million in support of administrative supplements for early-phase clinical interventions in breast cancer. The Avon-NCI Progress for Patients (PFP) Awards program was piloted within SPORE in 2002 and opened up to SPOREs and NCI-designated Cancer Centers in 2003. Currently, 21 early-phase clinical interventions in breast cancer are supported by the Avon-NCI PFP program, several of which represent inter-SPORE collaborations.
Most recently, two working groups have begun to systematically assess the pipeline of biomarkers and therapeutic agents being developed within the SPOREs. In January and February of this year, the working groups identified 10 to 12 priority projects with high potential impact within or across organ sites. The programs were struggling to overcome one or more different barriers ranging from acquiring enough material to perform a clinical trial to unraveling a complex series of intellectual property and regulatory issues surrounding the development of a panel of promising biomarkers. Interestingly, the solutions to some of these impediments may not require the expenditure of more funds, just some additional teamwork between individuals with diverse expertise, the original premise upon which the SPORE program was built.
In sum, the SPORE program represents one of NCI's many strategic opportunities to move basic discoveries into clinical applications.