Guest Update by Dr. John E. Niederhuber
NCI's Intramural Program: A Cornerstone for Success
To the public, NCI is often thought of in terms of being the largest supporter of cancer research in the world. That is clearly one of NCI's most important functions. Perhaps the untold story, however, is the outstanding research being carried out by the talented scientists and clinicians in the institute's intramural program, the foundation of which entails the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) and the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG).
NCI's intramural researchers perform essential basic, clinical, and epidemiologic research, upon which a great deal of extramural research is eventually based. Much of this work is rooted in multidisciplinary, collaborative science that takes advantage of the breadth and depth of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) research environment. In many cases, the research conducted by the intramural program is both high risk and high impact, involving complex investigations that offer tremendous promise conducted in the most thoughtful, rigorous fashion to ensure meaningful results. The intramural program also serves as the training ground for thousands of investigators launching their careers in science.
The history of the intramural program is marked by some of the seminal moments in cancer research history: the discovery of Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a genetic disorder found to predispose family members to multiple forms of cancer; the discovery of interleukin-2, which spearheaded the burgeoning field of immunotherapy; the early development of paclitaxel, the first natural product-based cancer drug; and the discoveries that clearly defined the central role of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in cervical cancer, as well as the development of the underlying technology for the HPV vaccine that has demonstrated tremendous success in recent clinical trials, and the development of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy for HIV/AIDS. There are many others.
The important work of the intramural program continues. For example, as recently highlighted in the NCI Cancer Bulletin, CCR researchers have led the development of agents that inhibit a target called heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), which aids other proteins that play a critical role in the development and progression of many cancers. This work was based on the discovery that an off-patent antibiotic inhibited HSP90. It is unlikely that the commercial sector would have pursued this research because it was based on a nonproprietary compound. Now that HSP90 inhibition is showing promise, however, six other companies are developing their own proprietary agents.
CCR investigators also are on the cutting edge of imaging technology development to diagnose, monitor, and treat disease, and some are involved in conducting early-phase clinical trials in the NIH Clinical Center, where they often test promising agents or treatment approaches developed in their own laboratories.
DCEG researchers have joined forces with extramural investigators in the formation of cohort, case-control, and family-based consortia in a cost-efficient and coordinated effort to accelerate progress in the discovery of cancer susceptibility genes and their interaction with environmental factors. As part of this effort, DCEG has guided the Cancer Genetic Markers of Susceptibility study, or CGEMS, which is using the latest genetic technologies to perform dense whole genome scans with the initial goal of identifying and validating susceptibility genes for breast and prostate cancers.
The NCI intramural research program is an invaluable and unique asset of the cancer research community. NCI Cancer Bulletin readers can expect to learn more about the research being done in the intramural program over the next year. As cancer researchers continue to delve even deeper into the complex mechanisms of cancer initiation, development, and progression, and begin to develop intervention strategies, I believe the intramural program will only accelerate its role as a catalyst for progress.