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Director's UpdateDirector's Update

At AACR, New Science and an Important Dialogue

Each annual meeting of the large U.S. and international cancer research organizations has its own unique aspects, its own atmosphere. Over the past several years, the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) annual meeting has begun to feature more clinical and translational research, while maintaining its focus on the basic sciences. It is this "bench to bedside and back" approach that makes it such an important meeting.

At this year's meeting, some conference rooms have been overflowing with attendees wanting to hear pre-eminent researchers discuss their latest thinking on topics such as making rational decisions about combination therapies with targeted agents. Meanwhile, many press conferences have featured young investigators who, often for the first time, are being given an opportunity to present exciting new data from important research projects they have led.

This year's meeting has been notable for other reasons. In particular, data from some early- and late-phase clinical trials have generated tremendous optimism.

Dr. Daniel Von Hoff presented exciting data from a phase I, first-in-man study involving an experimental Hedgehog pathway inhibitor. The data suggest that this agent has the potential to treat the rare patient who develops metastatic basal cell carcinoma. This trial is also a tribute to the tremendous basic research that elucidated this signaling pathway's potentially important role in cancer.

On a personal level, this year's meeting was also noteworthy because I had the opportunity to participate in what outgoing AACR President Dr. William Hait described as an "experiment:" a session in which, after a brief presentation, a number of attendees asked me questions about some of the most prominent issues facing NCI and the broader cancer community. In particular, it was clear that there is tremendous concern about ensuring that young investigators get the support and opportunities they need to become successful cancer researchers.

This is clearly a very important issue, and it is among my top priorities. Indeed, every time I testify before congressional committees or meet with legislators and their staff, I underscore the impact five years of flat budgets have had on the pipeline of young investigators and that despite the high priority NCI places on training and supporting young investigators, there are limits to what we can do with our available resources.

There were questions about investigator-initiated versus program-directed grants and team science as well. In my reply, I emphasized NCI's priority to vigorously protect the unsolicited grant portfolio during budgetary stresses - and these grants are anticipated to grow with new resources from future budgets.

Nonetheless, our individual investigator grants have eroded not only in their success rates but also in their size. Current awards are inadequate to support the cost of today's science. In addition, I was able to mention changes in other areas of our research portfolio, especially in our larger programs, to reflect the changing research environment. For example, as a result of recommendations from the Translational Research Working Group, adjustments are being made to integrate the Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) program into NCI's broader translational research program, enhance peer review, and more closely align individual SPORE funding to its priority score.

In discussing the ways in which NCI is improving the clinical trials process, I also stressed how important it is for the institute to create opportunities for connectivity between academia and industry and also between research progress and community cancer care. On the clinical trials front, for example, the Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid will be critical for connecting researchers and providing new tools and resources that have the potential to improve the efficiency of the clinical trials process.

As this dialogue and the AACR annual meeting have shown, the dedication of those in the cancer community to reduce the cancer burden has grown stronger despite the challenges we currently face.

Dr. John E. Niederhuber
Director, National Cancer Institute