Public Release: 

Transformative science

Public-private partnership funds $11.5M in biophysics cancer research

National Science Foundation

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IMAGE: This approach will take biological data and develop models to try to answer basic questions about cancer that can possibly help find a cure. view more

Credit: Vitanovski

A new public-private partnership between the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Cancer Institute (NCI), Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) and The V Foundation for Cancer Research is committing $11.5 million towards transformational, theoretical biophysics that could have a significant impact on cancer research and treatment. SU2C is a program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that raises money for innovative cancer research.

"Addressing today's toughest issues requires myriad perspectives," said Fleming Crim, the NSF Assistant Director for mathematical and physical sciences. "This public-private partnership not only stretches our science research dollars; it also approaches cancer research from a perspective of fundamental physics."

"SU2C's emphasis on collaboration extends beyond our research model. We work together with a number of other research funding organizations to benefit patients quickly, and we are thrilled to be a part of this new public-private partnership with the National Science Foundation and National Cancer Institute, along with The V Foundation for Cancer Research," said Sung Poblete, SU2C's president and chief executive officer.

"By merging research in life science with the physical, computational and engineering sciences, the new research model known as 'convergence' offers the potential for revolutionary advances and more rapid innovation in the understanding and control of cancer," said Arnold Levine, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and vice chair of SU2C's scientific advisory committee.

In this partnership, NSF is contributing $5 million, NCI is contributing $2.75 million, and SU2C in collaboration with The V-Foundation for Cancer Research is contributing $4 million to fund an NSF Ideas Lab to generate research projects that will employ physics-based approaches to cancer.

The Power of NSF Ideas Labs

NSF Ideas Labs bring together a group of participants with expertise in several research areas to work in teams over a five-day intensive workshop and develop proposals. Following the workshop, select teams are invited to submit proposals to a competition for funding. Ideas Labs generally involve 15-30 participants who are assisted by scientists with relevant expertise and a team of facilitators. They provide an opportunity to form new multidisciplinary collaborations and gain real-time iterative feedback to improve proposal ideas.

"For many years, researchers have recognized that theoretical physics brings an important perspective to the table in studying biological issues," said Denise Caldwell, NSF's director of its physics division. "Using an interdisciplinary approach to living systems, researchers can make quantitative predictions of a system's behavior that biological approaches cannot do alone."

'High risk-high payoff'

NSF's contribution to this project comes from Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funds. The EAGER funding mechanism supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. This work is often especially "high risk-high payoff" in that it involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

"Just as mathematical models indicated in the '90s that a cocktail of treatments would be effective to treat HIV, theoretical physics approaches can be effective in searching for basic principles in human cancer in a quantitative way that helps us better understand this disease," said Krastan Blagoev, program director for NSF's Physics of Living Systems program and who worked on the partnership. "To cure complex diseases, one has to drill down to basic science. Whether physicists are studying tumor growth, genetic susceptibility to a disease or a response to treatment, they take biological data and develop models that try to answer basic questions about cancer that can possibly help find a cure."

Interagency efforts between NCI and NSF, which began in 2009, will continue to flourish through this new program with both NSF and SU2C. An anticipated outcome of the NSF Ideas Labs exercise will be the integration of novel approaches from physics and mathematics, such as predictive forecasting methods, to aid the understanding of cancer as a complex dynamic disease. The Sept. 1 issue of the journal Cancer Research features a special section on physics in cancer research.

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More information will be forthcoming about proposal submissions and the upcoming Ideas Lab.

-NSF-

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