Unique Program Fosters Technology Development
Last week, more than 100 NCI-sponsored investigators met in Bethesda, Md., to discuss their projects and share ideas about the best ways to develop the technologies of the future. With just a glance at the agenda, you can see that this 2-day session echoed many of the exciting themes of today's cancer research: biomarkers, proteomics, signal transduction pathways, cellular imaging, and identification of cancer stem cells.
It is becoming clearer every day that technology development will both integrate and drive the chemical, physical, and biological sciences. NCI's Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies (IMAT) program, which hosted last week's event, is aimed squarely at devising and developing novel and emerging technologies in the support of cancer research, treatment, diagnosis, and prevention. In other words, technology is fueling the engines of discovery and translation.
Launched in 1998 under the NCI leadership of Dr. Richard Klausner, the IMAT program was, in many ways, a response to what NCI leaders correctly saw as the forthcoming genomics revolution. But Dr. Klausner and his staff also realized that, because of their high-risk nature, technology-related grant applications traditionally did not fare well in the R01 grant review process, the principal means of funding for individual investigators. Thus, a successful program was born.
Today, IMAT cuts across nearly all of NCI's extramural divisions, working to develop technologies that will, for example, detect alterations and instabilities in DNA, accurately measure gene expression, detect and analyze proteins and their functions, and generate novel systems of drug delivery through nanobiology. IMAT funds high-risk, high-reward projects, which are often at a conceptual stage, with little available experimental data. Grant applications are typically in proof-of-concept form.
Among the technology tools developed through the program are gene expression arrays, ultra-high-throughput molecular detection platforms, photo-stable molecular labels, and specific methods and technologies for clinical specimen preservation.
The success of the IMAT program stems, in part, from its structure. The program utilizes a staged approach, in which an exploratory or pilot project precedes a more advanced developmental or implementation phase. The exploratory/pilot requires the creation and use of quantitative milestones that address specificity, sensitivity, speed, and other performance parameters. The technology developed from the program is disseminated via collaboration, publication, licensing, and commercialization.
NCI has committed approximately $10.5 million each year in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years to the IMAT program. These dollars go toward soliciting and funding highly innovative, high-risk, cancer-relevant technology development projects ($3 million); developing emerging technologies within an appropriate biological or clinical cancer-relevant context or setting ($3 million); and developing sample preparation techniques and methodologies that are essential for effective research, technology development, and validation toward clinical application ($1 million). In addition, approximately $3 million in SBIR funds are used to support highly innovative technologies in private-sector company projects.
The IMAT program has made more than 300 awards since its inception, and both the number and quality of applications have steadily risen. Currently, the program is funding approximately 50 awards per year. About a third of the program's awards are made to small business concerns. Another attribute of the program is that about 15 to 20 percent of the awards each year are to new investigators.
Technologies supported through IMAT enable groundbreaking science across NCI. Those tools will allow for more accurate analysis of molecular pathways involved in different cancers, and they will reduce the cost of doing research through smaller sample sizes and the ability to simultaneously analyze multiple intracellular activities.
And, as the work being funded by IMAT so clearly demonstrates, innovative technologies will be essential to our continued progress against cancer.Dr. John E. Niederhuber
National Cancer Institute