Garth Powis, DPhil is director of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute Cancer Center. Tony Hunter, PhD, is director of the Salk Institute Cancer Center. Scott Lippman, MD, is director of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. Photo by SANDOVAL MEDIA.
San Diego provides a rare environment for biomedicine, with hundreds of life science organizations and companies clustered around major academic and research institutions, all within two miles of each other on what residents call "the Mesa."
Not surprisingly, that makes for an atmosphere vibrant with excitement, innovation, entrepreneurship and competition. There is no local shortage of drive and ambition. And yet collaboration and collegiality are the tradition and the norm here, so much so that visitors sometimes exclaim at the willingness, even eagerness, of San Diego scientists, labs and institutions to share their ideas, insights, data and resources.
Nowhere is that sense of common purpose for the common good more evident than in the San Diego NCI Cancer Centers Council or C3, an almost two-year-old partnership of the three National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in the region: the University of California, San Diego Moores Cancer Center, a comprehensive cancer center (MCC); the Salk Institute Cancer Center (SALK); and the Cancer Center at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (SBMRI), both NCI-designated centers for basic research. Chairmanship of the council rotates every two years among the three member centers.
Each of these institutions enjoys a singular reputation based upon years of basic science discovery and translational achievement, and each brings something different to the table. C3 was created to further leverage those distinct resources and talents, to build a new structure and process that would increase interaction among cancer center faculties, leading to a deeper understanding of the diseases we collectively know as cancer and, ultimately, to the invention and development of new and better therapies.
Distinct Centers, Unique Attributes
The Moores Cancer Center was granted NCI designation as a clinical cancer center in 1978 and achieved comprehensive cancer center status in 2001. Its landmark building on the UC San Diego campus, which opened in 2005, emphasizes its expansive mission to conduct both laboratory and population-based research and clinical care of patients, an effort organized into multiple research programs and disease teams. More than 400 doctors and scientists, drawn from 19 departments of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, move freely between the two wings of the building, sharing knowledge, discoveries and their own hard work in pursuit of improving the lives of patients they see every day.
The Salk Institute Cancer Center is a basic research cancer center, which became NCI-designated in 1973. Its 30 faculty members are organized into three programs focusing on cancer and metabolism, mouse models and cancer stem cells and growth control and genomic stability. Salk conducts the type of high-risk, high-reward basic research necessary to understand the molecular basis of cancer, which is fundamental to any eventual clinical success.
The Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute Cancer Center received NCI-designation as a basic cancer center in 1981. It has 48 faculty members who conduct basic science and translational research in the realms of tumor initiation and maintenance, cell death and survival networks and tumor microenvironment and metastasis. Like Salk, it is dedicated to changing paradigms and finding new ways to think about – and ultimately cure – cancer.
Historically, faculty and staff at all three institutions routinely collaborated on projects, large and small, often with stunning results. A couple of years ago, we realized we could do more – and do it better and faster – if we more thoroughly and thoughtfully harnessed our collective strengths. Doing so would enhance translational research and accelerate clinical impact.
Our path to progress is straightforward: At every opportunity, we look for avenues of greater interaction among the centers – clinical, translational, basic science and educational – through joint faculty appointments and recruitments and through organized initiatives, such as symposia, conferences, lectures and an annual retreat. With C3, the three institutions signed a formal agreement allowing selected NCI-CCSG-supported shared resources to be accessed by investigators at all three Cancer Centers at internal rates. These shared resources are in specialized areas, such as a human tissue biorepository (MCC), chemical library screening (SBMRI) and a viral gene transfer, targeting and therapeutics core (SALK).
To further promote collaborative research, C3 has partnered with Pedal the Cause (PTC), a local charity set up in 2013 by the chair of the MCC Board to raise funds for cancer research at the three local cancer centers through an annual two-day bike ride.
PTC has proven to be enormously popular and effective. Community participation has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in new funding for collaborative translational projects. Unlike other funding processes, the time between grant submission, review, decision-making and funding through PTC is notably quick – a mere four months.
In 2013, the first year of PTC, the event attracted several hundred participants and raised more than $400,000 for research. After a competitive, peer-reviewed process, these funds provided seed money to stimulate five 1-year pilot projects linking investigators at MCC with colleagues from at least one of the two NCI basic research cancer centers, using C3 shared resources. One grant, for example, allowed collaborating investigators to take forward their promising in vitro/mechanistic work in pancreatic cancer at the Salk into relevant in vivo model testing at MCC using patient-derived materials; another spurred an entirely new collaboration involving chemical library screening for inhibitors (at SBMRI) of a novel genetic driver recently discovered at MCC.
The 2014 PTC ride was even more successful. Participant numbers doubled, with each cancer center putting together their own large teams of riders and event volunteers, resulting in extraordinary esprit de corps at the event. Roughly $1 million was raised, enough to launch a multi-project, 2-year team science award in early 2015, in addition to new pilot projects.
In less than two years, we've seen and enjoyed tangible benefits from C3, from more investigators tapping into programs and resources that might previously have been inaccessible to new collaborative projects and experiments that might not have happened without the concerted support of C3.
Cancer is a complicated set of diseases. It will not – it cannot – be conquered by any single entity. Success can only happen if we work together, efficiently, creatively and as often as possible. C3 allows us to do just that.