NCI grants encourage new approaches to cancer research

Biomedical research has increasingly required the integration of computational and experimental approaches. In cancer research, this is becoming known as integrative cancer biology (ICB). To help establish ICB as a distinct field, the National Cancer Institute recently awarded grants to nine institutions, including MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to establish ICB research programs.

Professor Richard Hynes of MIT's Center for Cancer Research is the principal investigator on a five-year, $12.6 million grant which will be shared by a group of 13 investigators across MIT. Todd Golub, director of the Broad's cancer research program, is the principal investigator on a grant of the same magnitude that will establish a collaborative program between the Broad Institute and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

ICB research is designed to gain new insights into the development and progression of cancer through a systems-wide approach, and ultimately lead to the development of improved cancer interventions. The National Cancer Institute intends the different ICB programs to interact; the individual focus of each center is distinct and complementary to the others.

ICB research at MIT

MIT's ICB program will focus mainly on three research projects: cell proliferation, DNA repair and cell migration. These processes are involved in cancer initiation and progression and the research will build on the existing strengths of the investigators in animal and cellular models of cancer, cell and molecular biology, and computation and modeling, said Hynes, who is the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research in the Department of Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

"This award is exciting because it integrates the quantitatively inclined computational people with the wet lab biologists on campus. It will draw in trainees across traditional scientific boundaries," said Hynes.

The grant also includes funds for the establishment of research resources in bioinformatics, computation and modeling, and in the development of RNA interference (RNAi) technology. A third essential component of the grant provides funding for graduate student training and support for courses taught through MIT's Computational and Systems Biology program.

The 12 other investigators on the MIT grant are professors Jianzhu Chen, Frank Gertler, Tyler Jacks, Douglas Lauffenburger, David Sabatini, Leona Samson, Phillip Sharp, Peter Sorger, Bruce Tidor, Forest White, Jacob White and Michael Yaffe.

"This grant nucleated collaborations that wouldn't have happened as quickly without this funding," said Hynes.

Broad's ICB program

Researchers in the Broad ICB program will have a single focus--to determine the molecular signatures of each kinase (a class of proteins) in the human genome. Kinases play a central role in the pathogenesis for most, if not all, cancers and represent excellent therapeutic targets, said Golub, who is a Charles A. Dana Investigator at Dana-Farber.

The researchers will use these molecular signatures to measure gene expression results, and develop computational models that are predictive of kinase activation and its essentiality in cancer cells, said the scientists.

"This program will represent a vehicle to unite a great team of scientists interested in working together toward a single goal. It will also serve to further our efforts to work at the interface of cancer biology and computational biology," said Golub.

In addition to its scientific goal, the Broad/Dana-Farber ICB program will focus on community outreach and the training of biologists, computationalists and undergraduate students.

Other investigators involved in the Broad/Dana-Farber ICB grant are Eric Lander, Steven Carr, Jill Mesirov, Pablo Tamayo, William Hahn, Matthew Meyerson, Gary Gilliland, James Griffin, Thomas Roberts and Ed Harlow.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 27, 2004 (download PDF).

Topics: Bioengineering and biotechnology, Cancer, Health sciences and technology

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