Pushing Boundaries with Team Science
The following is the first article in a two-part series on how NCI is promoting transdisciplinary research and team science. Part two will cover some of the important epidemiology and population consortium initiatives that NCI is participating in/funding that stretch across multiple disciplines.
Whenever the key impediments to rapid progress in cancer research are discussed, the "silo approach" to research - investigators working only with others in their same discipline - is invoked. Those trying to span the divide between different research disciplines and work collaboratively often find themselves frustrated by roadblocks, including difficulties securing funding or lack of basic infrastructure to support a project that requires diverse expertise.
The launch of initiatives such as the cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid and the Integrative Cancer Biology Program has shown that team science is clearly a top priority at NCI (see NCI Cancer Bulletin, March 2 and Feb. 24, respectively). "Significant research advances will increasingly result from interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teams working together to solve complex problems in cancer," says Dr. J. Carl Barrett, director of the NCI Center for Cancer Research (CCR).
The CCR, for example, was created in 2001 based on this very thinking, merging two NCI intramural divisions devoted to basic and clinical sciences.
"This structure increases interactions among basic, translational, clinical, and population scientists facilitating the translation of basic science discovery to the clinical setting," says Dr. Barrett. "An inherent goal of the CCR is to create an environment in which investigators are rewarded for creativity and for engaging in collaborative interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.
"This approach to research is already bearing impressive fruit. The collaboration between CCR and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) researchers on the clinical proteomics program, for instance, has generated important findings that may lead to new tests that can detect prostate and ovarian cancer in the earliest stages. The success of the NCI-FDA proteomics program, according to the program's co-director, Dr. Lance Liotta, is a result of work by a broad spectrum of scientists: basic biologists, biomedical engineers, pathologists, device experts, and many others.
The NCI-FDA clinical proteomics team is planning to add a nanotechnology component to the process, which already relies on another sophisticated form of technology, mass spectroscopy. By combining the two, Dr. Liotta says, the team believes it can develop "a highly sensitive test applicable to early diagnosis for a variety of cancers."
The NCI-sponsored Lymphoma/Leukemia Molecular Profiling Project, led by Dr. Louis Staudt from the CCR Metabolism Branch, also owes much of its success to its transdisciplinary approach. Researchers with expertise in genomics, molecular biology, pathology, clinical investigation, information technology, and statistics have all contributed to this exciting project, which is using DNA microarray technology as a potential method for individualizing cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The team science concept is by no means limited to NCI intramural programs. NCI extramural programs are also getting involved. For example, NCI is helping to bring a transdisciplinary approach to a very promising area of investigation, cancer imaging research, says Dr. Daniel C. Sullivan, associate director for the NCI Cancer Imaging Program, part of the Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis.
"NCI funds centers that support basic and translational research in molecular imaging," he explains. "This funding includes centers that perform imaging for researchers who do not have expertise in this area - making this new technology available to more scientists. As part of the funding, these centers are required to form multidisciplinary teams.
"In addition to his work in the imaging program, Dr. Sullivan has teamed with several other National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers to develop a new model for NIH funding of consortium research projects. This model was recently approved for use by Dr. Norka Ruiz Bravo, the NIH deputy director for extramural research. (See Conversation with Dr. Daniel Sullivan)
"The silos are slowly fading away," says Dr. Barrett. "With this cross-fertilization of ideas, we will witness a revolution in research that will allow us to more effectively prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer."