When Vice President Biden announced his plans for the Obama administration's Cancer Moonshot initiative, he emphasized that its overall success depended on a complete culture shift built upon a basic, but often lacking, practice--collaboration. To push groundbreaking discoveries in biomedical research and development to patients in record time, he mandated that academia and industry must dismantle the traditional silos and band together as dedicated partners, working together and sharing data for the greater good.
First, we need to put aside market considerations and stop worrying right at the outset about who owns what. We need to find broad common ground and come to the table as a committed, but humble, community.
Collaboration is the unifying thread of our science; it is what defines us, and how we want to be known to our peers and in our community. We have long accepted the idea that none of us are smart enough to solve complex biological questions alone – nor should we. The beauty of scientific discovery is that it doesn’t really belong to anybody. It is meant to be shared, publicized and disseminated.
Of course, we cannot simply hit an innovation switch to generate new advances or therapies, but we can bring together motivated scientists from multiple disciplines and allow them to combine their expertise in ways that we cannot even foresee. This is the only way to catalyze the promise of biomedical innovation into truly transformative advances, and bring to the clinic rigorously grounded and non-redundant drug pipelines. Our shared goal is to deliver the right drug to the right patient at the right time.
A Spirit and Culture of Collaboration
At The Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, collaboration is our spirit and, frankly, it is embedded in our culture. We bring this to bear every day in our quest to understand diseases, both within the Institute and through creative new partnerships.
Case in point: One in three scientific articles that we publish in competitive, peer-reviewed literature involves a collaboration with other Wistar scientists. Similarly, one-third of grants that we receive from federal or non-federal funding agencies is the product of collaboration within Wistar. If we add relationships with scientists around the globe, that ratio becomes one in two. We’re also embarking on identifying new relationships outside our walls, pioneering joint projects in basic biomedical science and translational cancer research.
As a recipient of a $12.1 million Special Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) collaborative grant from the National Cancer Institute, Wistar is working with University of Pennsylvania researchers to develop new therapies for melanoma and other skin cancers. I am proud to say that Wistar was the first basic research, NCI-designated cancer center to be awarded a SPORE grant.
Another example: Through a historic, academic science-community cancer center partnership, Wistar and Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute in Delaware are working together to make significant advancements in the detection and treatment of cancer. Using blood samples contributed by patients at risk of lung cancer at the Graham Center, our scientists created a simple, more sensitive blood test that can be used to detect lung cancer at its earliest stages. Stemming from this unique collaboration, exclusive commercial rights to this non-invasive test were recently purchased for further testing. Wistar has also teamed up with Christiana on ovarian cancer research, using tumor samples to verify that previous animal model findings reflect what actually happens in human disease. We are also using Christiana-supplied samples to look at various types of myeloid cell defects and how cancer impacts their role in the body’s immune response.
It was recently announced that Wistar received the prestigious L’Oréal Paris USA–Melanoma Research Alliance Team Science Award for Women in Scientific Research, which recognizes the collaborative efforts by top-notch female investigators from five international institutions whose study focuses on malignant melanoma. The team received $900,000 to tackle the mechanisms that distinguish (and mark) fast-growing melanomas from those that are dormant.
Stimulating Scientific Innovation
Two new entities directed by Wistar further illustrate how we’re stimulating scientific innovation and collaboration at the seed stage of discovery and pulling together the tremendous intellectual capital found in the burgeoning Philadelphia life sciences community. Wistar developed the Philadelphia Drug Discovery Forum, a dynamic monthly gathering of academic and private industry scientists that gives researchers the opportunity to explore and advance ideas for accelerating drug research and development in the region, as well as discuss challenges to drug development.
We also spearheaded the creation of a first-ever Philadelphia Research Consortium aimed at creating a vibrant Philadelphia life sciences research community and bolstering its R&D pipeline by catalyzing productive, long-term relationships between the local research community and for-profit partners, minus the obstacles of unnecessary procedural burdens.
Strategic partnerships and pooled resources among scientists, physicians, our whole community of healthcare professionals, and the pharmaceutical industry have great potential to advance new research and innovative therapies that can truly transform the future of cancer treatment and improve patient outcomes. But in the end, it is unencumbered, open-minded teamwork and inclusiveness, where patients and science always come first, that will bring initiatives like the “moonshot” to life and fulfill its bold, but necessary goals.