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Cancer Currents for October 2011

News and Notes from the Director
Photo: Mark Israel, Director of Norris Cotton Cancer Center

Months ago, the simple but daunting idea of joining forces with other research universities in our region to advance cancer research by seeking synergies that could emerge from the disparate technologies and ongoing work at these sites gained traction amongst the leadership of several cancer centers. Scientific leadership at Norris Cotton Cancer Center, along with cancer researchers from Cancer Centers at the University of Vermont and the University of Massachusetts, Worchester, developed such a program for collaborative research and a funding strategy. Funds pooled by the individual participant centers would be used to support collaborative cancer research that would otherwise be impossible because the required expertise did not exist at any one of our centers. We sought the submission of proposals describing genuinely collaborative projects that would be conducted jointly at two or three institutions. Then, we waited. Would anyone apply?

Last week, following careful peer-review of over 20 submissions, 6 were funded, and of those, each had one or more Norris Cotton Cancer Center investigators engaged. Frankly, I'm overwhelmed by the scope of collaboration this represents. It demonstrates leadership, cooperation, superb communication, and an affinity for team science. Each of the proposed projects addresses an important, unknown area of cancer medicine and should provide sufficient insights and preliminary data for these investigators to seek more extensive, future funding from major sources of cancer research such as the federal government.

Given the national economic situation, our funding from national sources is both precious and constrained. From every corner we are exhorted to make best uses of resources, and one critical strategy to address this challenge is collaboration. In this region it has always been neighborly to share tools and knowledge. One might say that we have taken that practice of sharing from plows to deep DNA sequencing and strategies to improve population health. What more exciting vision?

As we move forward with our Strategic Planning process, developing opportunities for collaboration is a top priority. Our imperative is to prevent and cure cancer. The science that will contribute to these efforts requires communication and cooperation from our laboratories, our clinics, and our community and back again. I am extremely encouraged by the opportunities we have at Norris Cotton Cancer Center and our enthusiasm for collaboration as a truly fundamental way to leverage any single person's ideas and abilities. Together, we have what are surely unrecognizable sources of strength.

Mark Israel, Director



Nominations for ASG Prize: Deadline September 30

The deadline for nominations for the National Foundation for Cancer Research's Albert Szent-Györgyi Prize is fast approaching—September 30. Nominations for the Prize may be made by individuals from the research community, industry, government, or other organizations who are sufficiently familiar with the research accomplishments and contributions of the nominee. Self-nominations will not be accepted.

Candidates must have made an original discovery or breakthrough in scientific understanding that has led to better prevention, earlier diagnosis, or new treatments for patients with cancer. Documentation must accompany the nomination: details are available at www.ASGPrize.org.

The Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research is named in honor of Albert Szent-Györgyi, MD, PhD, who was a pioneer, and, like many other explorers, challenged the conventional thinking of the day to pursue his novel and promising ideas. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1937 for his study on vitamin C and cell respiration, Dr. Szent-Györgyi set his sights on finding a way to defeat cancer. Beyond his laboratory, Dr. Szent-Györgyi was a leading advocate for developing resources to provide scientists with the financial support necessary to pursue novel cancer research ideas. In 1973, he changed the face of cancer research funding by co-founding NFCR with entrepreneur Franklin C. Salisbury. Since then, NFCR has provided more than $288 million in support of cancer research and prevention education programs.

Logo: Provenge prostate cancer medication by Dendreon
Our First Provenge Patient

A potentially significant new era in prostate cancer therapy began at the Cancer Center in late August when our first patient to receive Provenge was treated. This revolutionary new drug, patented and distributed by Dendreon in Seattle, WA, uses the patient's own immune system to fight the cancer. The full treatment involves three courses approximately two weeks apart each, with each course timed to a drawing of the patient's blood cells. The Cancer Center is one of the first clinics in the country, and the only one in northern New England, to treat patients with Provenge, which provides an alternative to surgery and chemotherapy for prostate patients who have had their disease develop into a metastatic phase. Our first patient will be followed by five more already in the pipeline.

Photo: Sergey Devitskiy, MD, PhD
Welcome to St. J, Sergey Devitskiy

Our roster of oncologists serving patients in the Cancer Center's St. Johnsbury, VT, clinic recently expanded to include Sergey Devitskiy, MD, PhD, who comes to us after a fellowship in hematology/oncology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Devitskiy earned his degrees at the Kursk State Medical University in Kursk, Russia, before coming to the United States in 2004. He will be part of the Hematology / Oncology and Prostate & Genitourinary cancer teams in St. J as well as in Lebanon.

Paintballin' for Cancer

People who want to create an event to support the Cancer Center sometimes come from surprising places. Consider David Preston, an energetic 33-year-old who, as a small businessman, has a passion for giving back to his community. He owns and operates Outdoor Strategic Games, or OSG, one of the largest paintball parks in the United States—35 acres in Barnstead, NH (northeast of Concord) where hundreds of paintballers at a time can battle it out amid full-size pirate ships, castles, a western town, and other fantasy locales.

Photo: People who participated in the "Ballin' for Breast Cancer" benefit

On Sunday, September 11, David hosted the first annual "Ballin' for Breast Cancer" benefit, where 100 paintballers raised $1,100 for the Cancer Center. He chose the date specifically—"I wanted to do something positive on a day that's otherwise dark for so many people," he told us. He added that cancer has affected his family and many people he knows, and that he was inspired by the four nurses who founded The Prouty back in 1982. "Paintball is extremely fun, so if people can have fun and support a great cause, so much the better," he said. "Besides, I'm young and I'm motivated, and those are key ingredients to philanthropy." We couldn't agree more.

Employees Send Powerful Message of Support for Cancer Center

An overwhelming majority of employees participating in the Employee Giving Campaign 2011 designated their gifts to the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Nearly 1,000 employees designated $150,000 in gifts to the Cancer Center. This is a powerful statement of support from those close enough to understand the scope of our work. Overall  1,274 employees gave $650,000 to this year's campaign for staff. It's not too late to join in. To make a tax-deductible contribution (via payroll deduction, check, or credit card) before the end of the calendar year, visit the "Your Gift to the Employee Giving Campaign" page at giving.dartmouth-hitchcock.org.

M is for Mentor, K is for K Award
Photo: Hal Swartz, MD, PhD

Hal Swartz, MD, PhD

Hal Swartz, MD, PhD, has spent most of his career mentoring bright young students to become MD-PhDs. Right now he is working with four such protégées, three MD-PhDs and one clinically oriented PhD. The group meets once a month, and at their most recent meeting Chris Dant, PhD, came by to explain the various types of K awards that are available from the National Institutes of Health and why these career-advancement awards for biomedical investigators can be crucial to a young investigator's career. Hal has made it a requirement of his four young colleagues that they apply for a K award within 12 months.

"It is somewhere between difficult and impossible to do effective clinical research if you're a young clinician," says Hal. "The system makes it so hard for people to have time for serious research. The hardest part is simply time management." By giving his team a hard deadline to submit a full application for a K award and providing guidance along the way, Hal hopes to bring more MD-PhDs into Dartmouth. "My solution is to provide a structure and a real deadline," he comments.

K awards provide a wide range of funding opportunities designed for professionals interested in basic, clinical, and/or translational research. Typically, they provide partial salary and research support so that a junior investigator may have protected time in order to develop their research and career interests and be prepared to successfully transition to the status of an independent investigator or principal investigator. K awards are an excellent place for a postdoctoral fellow, clinical fellow, or junior faculty member to develop their research program and career in preparation for R01-type awards.

It is generous mentors such as Hal Swartz who will guide the next generation of brilliant investigators. Thanks to Hal for this outstanding leadership, and thanks to Chris, too, for tutoring Hal's protégés on the value of K awards.

Graphic: Picture of Focus article call-out box on web site
New Online Focus Newsletter Now Live

Last Thursday the new online Focus newsletter went live. Aside from taking our former print publication into a new online format, this new online tool also maximizes the visibility and reach of the content we develop. Focus content is now:

  • Integrated throughout the NCCC web site, including in clinical oncology group sections and research programs
  • "Pushed" to visitors to the web site via Focus call-out boxes featuring news related to the section of the web site they are in

People can also now subscribe to receive new Focus content automatically via RSS. Subscribe here: http://cancer.dartmouth.edu/focus/focus.xml.

This is a significant accomplishment and marks a transformation in the way we communicate and engage with our various audiences. Many thanks to all who contributed to this major undertaking: Ellen Reney, Susan Colm, Steve Bjerklie, Linda Kennedy, Ryan Newswanger, Donna Dubuc, and Stephanie Beliveau.

New Genomics and Microarray Lab Services

Several new services are now in place at the Dartmouth Genomics and Microarray Laboratory (DGML), including:

  • Advice on experimental design
  • Deep Sequencing (Illumina) (Joanna Hamilton, PhD, is the contact)
  • Library construction
  • ChIP-Seq
  • RNA-Seq
  • small RNA-Seq
  • DNA re-sequencing
  • De novo sequencing of small genomes
  • Microarrays (Illumina bead, Agilent, Affymetrix) (Heidi Trask, BS, is the contact)
  • Gene expression
  • CpG Island (global DNA methylation) arrays
  • Gene Copy Number Variation (GCNV)
  • miRNA and small RNA arrays
  • High-throughput analysis, statistics, and bioinformatics (Walter Taylor, PhD, and Carol Ringelberg, BS, are the contacts)

You can learn more about the DGML at dms.dartmouth.edu/dgml.