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New System Should Speed Discoveries from Lab to Patients

To help implement the new system, the IU Cancer Center has hired Mary Murray as a project manager to help its scientists move their projects forward.
To help implement the new system, the IU Cancer Center has hired Mary Murray as a project manager to help its scientists move their projects forward.

Leaders at the Indiana University Cancer Center are borrowing some of the best practices from private industry to speed the development of new cancer treatments from the laboratory to the bedside.

The project, called the Indiana University Cancer Center Translational Research Acceleration Collaboration (ITRAC), will provide funding and expertise to scientists who have made significant discoveries in their laboratories but aren't sure what steps are necessary to turn those discoveries into products that will improve patient care.

"There's a lot of frustration among scientists," said Mark Kelley, Ph.D., Jonathan and Jennifer Simmons Professor of Pediatrics and associate director for basic science research at the IU Cancer Center. "I may know how to kill cancer cells in a petri dish in my laboratory, but what do I do next? How do I move my project on the road to the clinic where it will help patients?"

The program complements a growing emphasis by the National Institutes of Health, including the National Cancer Institute, on translational research, which refers to the development and testing processes that basic science laboratory discoveries go through to become new patient treatments.

ITRAC will implement a new planning and review process that will make money available for that translational research work, which often isn't funded by the grant that made the original basic science discoveries possible.

IU Cancer Center committees will review research projects and identify those with the most potential for clinical applications as well as commercial potential -- potential that the individual scientists may not even realize is there.

As a part of ITRAC the cancer center also is developing a comprehensive database of resources available both on and off-campus to help with development, down to such details as molecules and biochemical pathways that cancer center researchers have worked with.

"This process will help us know what resources are available, both internal and external, including the private sector," said Dr. Kelley.

The effort also will help identify what resources are needed by the cancer center, ranging from building a laboratory that can conduct certain tests to recruiting a scientist with a specific area of expertise. It also will help the cancer center match potential donors with research projects they might want to support.

"When a potential donor asks, what areas of research or targets do you have, you can produce a list of ranked, vetted projects," Kelley said.

To help implement the new system, the IU Cancer Center has hired a project manager, Mary Murray, to help its scientists move their projects forward. She previously performed a similar role at Eli Lilly and Co, and her goals at IU are the same.

"They are the team of scientists trying to cure cancer; I help them organize the processes so they can do the science. I like to view my position as the team organizer who helps them overcome the obstacles along the way," Murray said.

One way around, or through, such obstacles is with careful development of the research strategy using interdisciplinary research teams. Proper integration of the different research functions is vital. Pharmaceutical companies map projects from beginning to end, Dr. Kelley said. The idea is to bring the process to the academic research center, but with different goals.

"We're not a drug company, we're not going to make drugs. We want to move the science with the cancer patient in mind," said Stephen Williams, M.D., director of the IU Cancer Center.

Oncologist Christopher Sweeney, M.B.B.S., associate director of the cancer center for clinical research, said ITRAC could have helped when he and colleague, Harikrishna Nakshatri, Ph.D., associate professor of surgery, biochemistry and molecular biology, were working on a compound they hope to take into clinical trials. Their search for a medicinal chemist to make a water-soluble version of the compound led to an out-of-state academic partner.

"ITRAC likely would have helped us keep the work at home in Indiana, and get it done faster," Dr. Sweeney said.

Dr. Kelley emphasized that the system is not meant to be punitive to researchers whose work doesn't initially receive ITRAC assistance.

"If someone doesn’t get funding from this initiative, he or she doesn't lose anything.  We're not going to tell people to quit working on one thing and do another, but we are going to facilitate the best projects to reach patients as quickly as possible."