NEW YORK—Dozens of cancer researchers convened for two days in April at the Leon and Norma Hess Center for Science and Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital to discuss the results from their work in brain cancer, blood malignancies, cancer stem cells, lung cancer, breast cancer, and more—and how their findings translate across laboratories and across tumor sites. Their willingness to collaborate is why this group of researchers was chosen to receive funding from the Samuel Waxman Research Foundation.
“To get a grant past the first year, the researchers have to collaborate with other researchers funded,” explained Samuel Waxman, MD, founder and CEO of the Foundation. The idea, he said, is that including researchers with a diversity of thought offers the best hope of translating progress in cancer treatment across cancer types and research efforts.
That was the lesson of Waxman's well-known successes in acute promyelocytic leukemia: “That idea is now being translated to other forms of blood malignancies and cancers,” he said.
In an interview at the symposium, Waxman elaborated on the potential of such collaborations.
The researchers funded by the Foundation are working on all different types of cancer research—could you explain how that is connected and how the researchers can collaborate?
“We have created a brain trust on understanding what is wrong with the abnormal gene expressions in cancer. It goes across the entire spectrum of cancer. By having that reach, we can understand why a cancer cell doesn't function properly and what makes it go on to die; why cancer cells have the ability to become resistant to treatment; and why some cancer cells remain dormant but are still able to survive many, many years in the patient.
“The Foundation was built on the idea that in order to make progress in curing and finding treatments for cancer, you have to understand what the problem is in the cancer cell. You need really good discovery research. And, that can be done only by highly qualified scientists, and can be done more rapidly by teams collaborating.
“It may be that foundations do better in terms of fundraising if they focus on one kind of cancer—and we discussed this at great length over the two days of the symposium. And, it was the overwhelming opinion of the researchers funded by the foundation that the diversity of thought—having the right brain trust—is what makes this foundation unique.”
So how do you select researchers to receive funding and be part of the Foundation?
“We're looking for real experts—scientists of proven performance. And they have to respond to our mission—that is, to be interested in abnormal function of the gene or pathway that results in cancer cell development—in any form of cancer. We often call this the epigenetic part of cancer control.”
Which updates at the symposium were you most excited about?
“There is a form of leukemia that has a problem with a particular gene in the biochemistry of these cells. There is a metabolite building up because of a mutation. But, if you use an inhibitor against it—you can actually get remissions in this form of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). That's the same idea as what we did in acute promyelocytic leukemia—the cells actually differentiate to stop looking leukemic, they become n-stage leukemic cells, and people go into remission.
“And in colon cancer, there is new research on the effect of diet and inflammation—what particular genes are responding in a way that causes cancer in response to fat, diet, and inflammation, like Crohn's disease.
“We also heard about some really interesting genes that make proteins that could be drugs, and we heard a lot about cancer stem cells in leukemia and in breast cancer.”