Reaping the rewards of synergistic research

Synergy Fund supports two pilot projects involving scientists from separate labs working in innovative partnerships
Drs. Jim Olson, Nina Salama, Gerry Smith, and Cassian Yee
Drs. Jim Olson, Nina Salama, Gerry Smith, and Cassian Yee are recipients of the first Synergy Fund pilot-study grants. Established by a gift from Dr. Jim Roberts and his wife, Pamela Becker, and generously supported by matching funds raised at the Hutch Holiday Gala, the Synergy Fund encourages scientists to join efforts and labs in new and fruitful ways. Photo by Lillian Furlong

A combined or cooperative action of force — that is how Webster's defines "synergy." The word seldom comes to mind concerning research, which is reputed to be a solitary, potentially isolating pursuit. But the Synergy Fund, a new resource for Center pilot studies, aims to shake up the stereotype by encouraging scientists to join efforts and labs in new and possibly fruitful ways.

In July, two collaborative proposals became the first to receive funding through the Synergy Fund. One project, involving Drs. Cassian Yee and Jim Olson of the Clinical Research Division, seeks to determine whether a "tumor-painting" technology developed in the Olson Lab to improve surgical removal of solid tumors might also prove an effective tool for early detection of skin cancer. The two scientists will also test the technology — which involves a scorpion-derived "paint" called chlorotoxin — as a targeting peptide for immunotherapy.

In the other project to be funded, Dr. Gerry Smith of the Basic Sciences Division and Dr. Nina Salama of the Human Biology Division will work together to set the groundwork for development of new, more-effective treatments targeting strains of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that causes stomach cancers and ulcers.

The Smith Lab will study the genetics of the DNA break-repair (recombination) proteins in H. pylori, with the goal of determining how best to target that bacterium with drugs. The Salama Lab, which has developed mouse models of H. pylori infection, will extend those efforts by studying which activities of the bacterium's recombination proteins are important for its virulence.

H. pylori study

The project came about when Salama sought Smith's advice on how to approach the identification and study of recombination genes in H. pylori — which has become increasingly resistant to existing therapies — in hopes of finding activities to target for the development of new drugs.

"I asked, 'Who knows a lot about recombination proteins?' Gerry does, of course, so we began to discuss which biochemical activities might come into play with H. pylori," Salama said. "But it was the Synergy Fund that enabled us to take this project from the back burner to the front burner — to be able to put our time and resources into it."

Smith is compelled by the project's potential to lead to simple new treatments for a bacterium that wreaks havoc with public health in the developing world. "Through this project, we may be able to determine whether drugs can be found that inhibit the growth of these resistant bacteria," Smith said. "That hunt for treatments is interesting — and even more interesting, for a scientist, is to understand which activities are necessary for pathogenesis."

The Yee/Olson partnership came about after Yee attended his colleague's presentation on tumor painting. "I started thinking about how Jim's research ideas might apply to melanoma, which is one of my areas of expertise," Yee said. The two sat down to talk about a partnership, and their brainstorming gave way to the concept of testing the immunotherapeutic potential of the tumor-painting technology.

Olson said the collaboration tests the efficacy of chlorotoxin as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool against skin cancer using the innovations and animal models of the Yee Lab. "We've been talking about these experiments for a few months, but could do very little without funding. In preparation of the Synergy Fund application, we pushed ourselves to design experiments that would change the practice of cancer medicine, if successful."

Both scientific collaborations are pilot studies utilizing the advantages of two labs that have not previously worked together.

Collaboration and imagination

"Every proposal that was submitted for funding this year was very strong science, but two were chosen for their collaborative innovation and imagination," said Dr. Jim Roberts, director of Basic Sciences and the founder of the Synergy Fund. "These two projects truly represent new thinking from the labs involved."

The first round of grant proposals was due on May 1, with selection and funding completed at the end of June. Twelve proposals — representing the projects and ideas of 24 investigators — were submitted for consideration.

Roberts serves as an adviser to a five-member Synergy Fund voting committee, which includes representation from each of the scientific divisions. Dr. Mark Groudine, deputy director, chairs the committee.

"We were very pleased with the quality and number of proposals we received the first time around," Roberts said. "The expectation is that the faculty will send in even more great proposals for next year, now that the word is out we're looking for projects that represent new directions in research."

Roberts and his wife, Pamela Becker, made a $1.5 million gift and an appeal to guests at last year's Hutch Holiday Gala to establish the Synergy Fund. In response to their appeal, guests donated an additional $2.2 million.

Each of the funded projects will receive $175,000. According to Roberts, the Synergy Fund has sufficient resources to continue backing proposals for the next 17 years — and beyond, with assistance from the Development Department in garnering additional support from private donors.

Nancy Wells, vice president for Development, said the Synergy Fund would be a key fund-raising priority for the Center. "Jim and Pam made the first thoughtful donation, which was then very generously matched by guests at the Gala. Now that the first Synergy Fund projects have been awarded — and we have a story to tell — it will be easier for us to market to potential donors."

Wells said that a Synergy Fund brochure is being created to help attract high-level donations. "We share Dr. Roberts' enthusiasm to see the Synergy Fund perpetuated," she said.

The funded researchers note that the National Institutes of Health rarely makes grant monies available for pilot studies. "With the big NIH grants, it seems as though you need to have major findings in hand before successfully competing for funding," Olson said. "With the Synergy Fund, we can pursue an idea with the simple goal of testing its feasibility. Then, once we have the sense it's successful, we can apply to the NIH."

"It's an honor to be funded by the Synergy Fund," Yee said. "Our project would normally be considered high-risk. To apply to a committee of internal peers for funding, to explain our idea, then to find out so soon that we received the grant, has been great."

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.