The Cancer Collaborators

Crossing disciplines, pushing cancer research in new directions, is the Dartmouth way

The Dartmouth campus may seem small and even quaint when compared with large research institutions. Its learning, knowledge, and research are deep, however, and uniquely connected.

Focus article photo

Duane Compton, PhD

Indeed, Dartmouth is known for its innovative interdisciplinary research, and Norris Cotton Cancer Center is often the bridge-builder of exciting, collaborative science.

Duane Compton, PhD, associate director for basic sciences and director of the Cancer Mechanisms Research Program, explains why Dartmouth and the Cancer Center are well suited for interdisciplinary science. "We have great communication here," he says. "The relatively small size of the campus means that we see each other frequently. We know each other."

Just as importantly, he adds, the clear connection and interaction between Dartmouth College's various schools as well as DHMC and the Cancer Center ensure that researchers and clinicians don't become isolated in silos of expertise. "No one person can be an expert in everything," he says. "One of the best parts of my job is connecting people, being able to tell a researcher, 'Oh, you should go talk to so and so, they're working on something that might fit really well with what you're doing.' That happens quite a lot, actually." Often, researchers find interdisciplinary partners themselves just by talking and sharing ideas, he adds. "We've established affinity groups just for that purpose. It's the mission of these groups to find areas of common interest to push research in new and interesting directions."

He ticks off several ongoing projects that bring together different disciplines to find new answers in cancer research: proteomics, bioinformatics, molecular biology, field studies on arsenic in drinking water, among many others. "Some of these studies simply aren't possible allows us to attack problems that are at other institutions, which tend to be carved up into fiefdoms. That's not the case at all at Dartmouth," he says. "We are looking at cancer from an interdisciplinary standpoint in much the same way that cancer touches so many different aspects of our lives and society."

The bottom line, Dr. Compton states, is that "collaborating allows us to attack problems that are bigger than any single researcher can address."

Dartmouth's collegial, collaborative environment promotes bench-to-bedside research that brings together basic, clinical, and translational scientists, points out Ethan Dmitrovsky, MD, professor of pharmacology, toxicology, and medicine at Dartmouth Medical School and co­director of the Cancer Epidemiology and Chemoprevention Research Program. As a researcher whose work has led to six clinical trials that moved new discoveries from the laboratory to patients, Dr. Dmitrovsky has a keen interest in the benefits of collaboration. "My team searches for ways to combat lung cancer, which is, sadly, the most common cause of cancer death for men and women. Our interdisciplinary team explores whether pathways discovered in the laboratory can be unleashed to better treat or even prevent lung cancers in our patients," he comments.

The new Dartmouth Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNE), funded by a five-year, $12.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, exemplifies how the Cancer Center builds bridges to connect different disciplines into a single exciting project. The CCNE, which involves the Cancer Center, Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, and Dartmouth Medical School, places Dartmouth among the top centers in the emerging field of cancer nanotechnology research nationwide.

In awarding the grant, NCI reviewers cited the Dartmouth CCNE for its leadership, its outstanding research team, and its highly integrated and inter-dependent projects.

Ian Baker

Ian Baker, CCNA program director

Ian Baker is CCNE program director and a member of the Cancer Center who is also the Sherman Fairchild Professor of Engineering at Thayer. He believes that crucial technical elements of the project are intrinsically interconnected. "They could not occur separately," he says. Two scientific engineers from Thayer—Tillman Gergross, PhD, and Karl Griswold, PhD—will tag the tiny (one­millionth of a millimeter) magnetized nanoparticles so that antibodies, which help fight tumors, stick to the nanoparticles. The Cancer Center's Jack Hoopes, DVM, PhD, will use these antibody-tagged nanoparticles in an experiment involving treatment for breast cancer, and Steve Fiering, PhD, also a Cancer Center member, will use the nanoparticles with ovarian cancer treatment. Imaging the nanoparticles—a crucial part of the project which involves tracking the effectiveness of the antibodies—is being co-directed by John Weaver, PhD, at the Cancer Center and Brian Pogue, PhD, at Thayer.

Hoopes is enthusiastic about the cross-collaboration the nanotechnology effort has already established. "I think this is the largest collaborative project ever to come to Dartmouth," he says.

"As you can see, all the components of the CCNE are interconnected, and it would be difficult for them to stand alone," comments Baker. "While one could imagine this work elsewhere, I think the close cooperation and links between DMS, particularly the Cancer Center, and Thayer, and the collaborative, non-territorial spirit of the faculty is what makes this work."

April 10, 2011