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Indiana cancer researchers beginning to reap benefits from ITRAC

After the October 2006 launch of Indiana University Cancer Center Translational Research Acceleration Collaboration (ITRAC), investigators are experiencing firsthand the benefits offered by ITRAC’s planning and internal funding process designed to speed the development of new cancer diagnostics and therapies from the laboratory to the bedside. Over 21 projects have been mapped with the ITRAC process with several more on the radar.

ITRAC aims to provide project management expertise as well as funding to scientists who have made significant discoveries in their laboratories but are unable to proceed for two reasons. They are not sure what steps are necessary to turn those discoveries into products that will improve patient care, and they do not have funding from the grant that made the original basic science discoveries possible.

A very important part of ITRAC Project Manager Mary Murray’s role is to enable understanding of the ITRAC initiative among principal investigators to help their projects progress efficiently and effectively.

"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.

ITRAC was implemented with the recent IU Cancer Center Experimental and Developmental Therapeutics (EDT) pilot project grant process. In total, six EDT projects have received funding through the ITRAC process. Millie Georgiadis, Ph.D., cancer center member and associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, was one of the pilot project recipients. Georgiadis’ laboratory, in collaboration with Mark Kelley, Ph.D. and Zhong-Yin Zhang, Ph.D. laboratories here at IU, will pursue a high-throughput screening approach to identify novel compounds, specifically hAPE1 repair inhibitors, with the goal of developing a novel cancer therapeutic. Georgiadis will benefit from ITRAC by connecting with resources and identifying additional opportunities for collaboration.

“I am very excited about the ITRAC program as a ‘new way of doing business’ from which I think many of us will benefit,” says Georgiadis. ” Working with Mary Murray has really helped us to focus on key goals and decision points in our project that will greatly improve our chances of success in developing a novel cancer therapeutic.”

The IU Cancer Center lung cancer pilot project grant applications were also mapped by Murray. Grants were awarded to the best projects to reach patients as quickly as possible. Daniel Raftery, PhD, professor of analytical and physical chemistry at Purdue University, is principal investigator of one of three lung cancer pilot projects. Indiana University investigators include Praveen Mathur, M.B.B.S., and Francis Sheski, M.D. Utilization of ITRAC enabled collaboration between Indiana University and Purdue University on a project.

The overall goal of Raftery’s funded research is to detect and investigate detected biomarkers for early detection of lung cancer, following therapy, or disease progression. If successful, the results may lead to a tool that is currently lacking and will provide physicians with the ability to effectively screen or evaluate potential therapies.

Raftery will benefit from ITRAC’s project management, including the development of a strategic and interdisciplinary research work plan, identification of needed resources, and opportunities for collaboration - all of which is likely to accelerate his project. In this case, Murray made him aware of the Hoosier Oncology Group to provide human specimen as a back-up to his source since this was not available at his own institution.

To identify research projects to be mapped and potentially funded by ITRAC, the ITRAC Scientific Strategy Group reviews research projects and identify those that have the most potential for clinical applications -- potential that the individual scientists may not even realize is there.

Investigators work with Murray to map their project, and once funded, continually update their map so that potential obstacles can be identified and resolved. Process mapping can help investigators define the necessary work flow and decision criteria to achieve their goals, bring an interdisciplinary team together to strategize, visualize opportunities for optimization of the project process flow, and track progress and resource utilization. Process mapping is currently applied for internally funded projects, but cancer center members can request the project management service regardless of the availability or their interest in internal funding.

“Mapping is an interdisciplinary process and opportunity for researchers to work together to build a strategy. It brings different view points and feedback from the appropriate scientific expertise.” says Murray. “They visualize the strategy on paper.”

Investigators get to have the correct people involved to build a research plan and advance through each phase with the end goal of improved patient care in mind. They better understand the sequence and interdependencies in the process and can more efficiently manage and prioritize their research, anticipating and preparing for potential future needs. They are better prepared to problem solve along the way and maintain momentum of their research.

In addition to offering internal funding, ITRAC will also help the cancer center match potential donors with research projects they might want to support. The seed funding is critical to advancing translational research efforts and sustaining early cancer center initiatives since the amount of funding from federal sources has been reduced considerably in recent years.

For more information about ITRAC, contact Mark Kelley, Ph.D., associate director of basic research at the IU Cancer Center, at mkelley@iupui.edu.