Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center researchers received six highly sought-after Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 2013, accounting for more than a third of all SPORE grants awarded by the NCI this year. A persistent budgetary squeeze has reduced both the number and size of the grants, which support research that moves from the laboratory to the clinic.
Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC) is a consortium of more than 1,000 cancer scientists at seven Harvard-affiliated schools and hospitals.
SPORE grants cover several individual projects within a single type of cancer, and are designed to speed the application of basic science findings to treatment. The grants, which run for five years, are awarded to teams of scientists who work in multiple disciplines and institutions.
The DF/HCC SPORE grants awarded this year are:
- Breast cancer – principal investigator, Eric Winer, MD, chief, division of Women's Cancers and director of the Breast Oncology Center, Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber
- Gastrointestinal cancer – principal investigator, Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, director, Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber;
- Multiple myeloma – principal investigator, Ken Anderson, MD, director, Jerome Lipper Center for Multiple Myeloma at Dana-Farber;
- Prostate cancer – principal investigator, Philip Kantoff, MD, director, Lank Center for Genitourinary Oncology at Dana-Farber;
- Brain cancer – principal investigator, Tracy Batchelor, MD, MPH, executive director of the Steven E. and Catherine Pappas Center for Neuro Oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital
- Sarcoma – co-principal investigators, George Demetri, MD, senior vice president for Experimental Therapeutics, and director, Center for Sarcoma and Bone Oncology at Dana-Farber; and Raphael Pollock, MD, PhD, of Ohio State University.
The success of DF/HCC researchers in SPORE grantsmanship is due, first, to the quality of their science, says Kantoff, chair of Dana-Farber’s Executive Committee for Clinical Research. Another strength is that their work is “highly translational” – likely to result in improved therapies in the near future.
The breast cancer SPORE application, for example, benefited from the fact that “we’ve achieved a true integration of clinical investigation and laboratory investigation,” Winer says. “Many years ago, it was a challenge to get lab researchers and clinical trial leaders to work together. That is no longer the case.”
Preparing a SPORE grant application is a year-long process that begins when the principal investigator (PI) invites researchers to submit proposals for individual research projects. The researchers then present their project ideas to the PI and an executive committee, which winnows the proposals to a manageable number. Over a period of months, the finalists present and re-present their proposals in a process of continual critique and refinement.
About three months before the submission deadline, the PI begins working on the formal application, hundreds of pages long and laying out the overall organization of the SPORE, capsule biographies of the researchers involved, descriptions of their accomplishments, tracks for career development of SPORE members, and more.
“One of the advantages of SPORE grants is that they give you the leeway to end projects that aren’t working out and insert new ones during the course of the grant,” Kantoff says.
From a PI’s perspective, the appeal of a SPORE is that it “presents an opportunity to change the natural history of the disease in patients today as well as prepare the next generation of translational researchers,” says Anderson, who is also the director of the LeBow Institute for Myeloma Therapeutics at Dana-Farber. Adds Lipper Center Associate Director Nikhil Munshi, MD, who is leading one of the projects in the myeloma SPORE, “Previous SPORE grants have helped us start with a target molecule in myeloma cells, design a drug directed at that target, test the drug in patients, and move toward having it approved for standard care. That is a model of what can be accomplished with SPORE grant support.”