Funding young researchers remains an important focus for the National Cancer Institute, even though the federal group's budget has remained flat the past few years, the acting head of the NCI told students and faculty of the MIT Center for Cancer Research on Friday, April 21.
"We need to think of cancer and cancer development in a broader context, not just as a tumor," said Dr. John Niederhuber, deputy director for translational and clinical sciences and interim head of the NCI.
"We need to ... see changes in the pathway of a cell to predict cancer. And you will be the ones who will be able to do this," he told a packed room of faculty, postdoctoral associates and students in his talk about the frontiers of cancer biology.
Hot areas of research now, according to Niederhuber, are the microenvironment around the tumor and cancer stem cells that accumulate genetic alterations over a lifetime and renew themselves to establish cancer in a given tissue.
"We've directed money toward collaboration rather than big science," he said. "MIT is a classic example of bringing together people from chemistry, engineering and computer science -- people who are not normally involved in cancer research -- to work with biologists and clinicians. From that, exciting things can bubble up."
Another area of strength at MIT that Niederhuber emphasized was nanotechnology. Nanotech platforms can be used for the early detection of cancer, he said.
Last October NCI announced funding to establish seven multi-institutional hubs across the nation that will integrate nanotechnology across a broad array of cancer research projects and aim for new solutions to diagnose and treat cancer. Among them is the MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, which is being headed by MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer and Professor Ralph Weissleder, M.D., of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital.
The nanotechnology initiative is one of the "big science" ideas championed by departing NCI Director Andrew von Eschenbach. Under von Eschenbach's tenure, NCI funding from the federal government had doubled until 2003, but it has remained flat since.
The stagnant budget, which was about $4.8 billion in fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2006, doesn't keep up with inflation, so the funding actually amounts to a deficit, Niederhuber admitted. That means more creative uses of money to keep pulling in young cancer researchers, and more collaborative projects.
Faculty at the event pressed Niederhuber about what NCI is doing to preserve funding for younger researchers. Niederhuber said the 27 institutions and centers of the National Institutes of Health, of which NCI is one, are working together, so many grants for cancer work could actually come from other institutions.
One area of note, he said, is that NCI has increased the funding amount for grants to first-time investigators.
Niederhuber also said he is paying particular attention to researchers competing to renew an NCI grant for the first time. "The first competing renewal of a grant is a make-or-break point to getting tenure," he said. "I'm trying to highlight and identify those individuals so we don't lose talented people at this point."
The third focus is on the Howard Temin Award, a five-year grant for postdoctoral fellows. NCI funds about 20 of these per year, and upwards of 170 are funded NIH-wide, he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 26, 2006 (download PDF).