National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
June 15, 2010 • Volume 7 / Number 12

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Guest Director's Update

Pushing the Boundaries of Possibility through Strategic Collaboration

Dr. Robert H. Wiltrout Dr. Robert H. Wiltrout

In light of the mounting evidence of cancer’s complexity presented by researchers from around the world at this year’s annual meetings of the American Association for Cancer Research and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, I remain both sober and hopeful about the future of our work. In a way, we now stand at a defining moment in the history of cancer research. Just as high-throughput technology and computing capacity made it possible to discover what exactly constitutes a human genome, it is clear that we can now harness these same techniques to determine the exact nature of cancer genomes. 

To successfully do this, though—to truly push the boundaries of the possible—we must perfect the art of strategic collaboration. Although the contributions and discoveries made by individual investigators remain the cornerstone of new knowledge, effective use of that knowledge now depends on the power of partnership and teamwork.

At one time, it was the norm for scientists to work independently in relative isolation. Today we understand that we can accomplish more, and make every dollar go further, if we communicate and collaborate. Researchers and the work we do are made better by having other scientists around us, especially those in other disciplines.

University of Maryland (UMD) President Dr. C. D. Mote, Jr., looks on as Dr. Robert Wiltrout, director of NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, and Dr. Melvin Bernstein (right), vice president for research at UMD, sign an agreement establishing the Collaborative Research and Graduate Partnership Program in Cancer Technology. University of Maryland (UMD) President Dr. C. D. Mote, Jr., looks on as Dr. Robert Wiltrout, director of NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, and Dr. Melvin Bernstein (right), vice president for research at UMD, sign an agreement establishing the Collaborative Research and Graduate Partnership Program in Cancer Technology.

Toward this end, our leadership in NCI’s Center for Cancer Research (CCR) has made significant advances in building strong scientific partnerships with public and private institutions as we strive to translate new scientific discoveries for the benefit of patients. We are shifting our culture in many ways to make sure we are facilitating strategic collaborations. One of the most challenging aspects of our transition to team science is that it requires researchers to share scientific recognition and credit in a new way. For decades, scientists have largely been recognized and rewarded for individual accomplishment, which has an impact on tenure decisions, grant submissions, promotions, scientific awards, and acceptance to prestigious organizations. In order to enable change, so that our collaborations can be limitless and more successful, we continue to pursue paradigm shifts among both our scientific teams and the organizations that recognize their achievements.

Capitalizing on the idea that solutions to fundamental questions in cancer research will be facilitated by approaches and input from experts in complementary disciplines, we have recently established the Collaborative Research and Graduate Partnership Program in Cancer Technology with the University of Maryland (UMD) departments of Physics and Mathematics and the Institute for Physical Sciences and Technology. This agreement allows qualified UMD graduate students from the participating departments to conduct research under the joint supervision of CCR and UMD faculty and enables new collaborations between CCR researchers and UMD faculty.

Research enterprises like NCI and pharmaceutical companies are also becoming natural scientific allies, since the science needed to support successful drug development can be too complex to undertake independently. To enable further alliances with the pharmaceutical industry, we have established an umbrella Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) that streamlines our collaborations, and we have used that vehicle to enter into collaborative agreements between CCR investigators and industry. Currently, CCR has more than 100 active CRADAs, and CCR’s technologies can be found in over 200 licensed products, including several FDA-approved products that were dependent upon contributions from CCR laboratories. We hope a new culture of collaboration and partnership will further increase these practical accomplishments.

To foster collaboration even further, five Centers of Excellence have been established in CCR to promote interactions among investigators at NCI and other NIH institutes, extramural scientists, and the private sector across the country and around the world. Each center serves as a locus of resources and infrastructure aimed at accelerating the discovery, development, and delivery of interventions for preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Within our clinical program, collaborations are equally expansive. Broad national and international partnerships are enabling new trials in which treatment of individual patients is guided by genomic information, or in which diagnoses based on genomic profiles inform new strategies for intervention, all while minimizing the use of inappropriate approaches.

In the next few years, the convergence of a vast body of new knowledge and insights about cancer genomes, with the rapidly evolving culture of cross-disciplinary partnerships, promises to revolutionize the translation of basic discoveries to clinical application.

Dr. Robert H. Wiltrout
Director, NCI Center for Cancer Research

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