The American Cancer Society and UC
Davis Cancer Center cultivate a new generation of cancer researchers
David Gandara and Zelanna Goldberg
For a young scientist, the road to a successful research career is paved with catch-22s: No research
without funding, no funding without research.
To help address the dilemma, David Gandara, director of clinical research at the Cancer
Center, in 1995 applied to the American Cancer Society's
Institutional Research Grant program. This venerable awards program is designed to cultivate future cancer
researchers. Some 30 institutions apply for the three-year grants each funding cycle. About half are accepted.
"Cancer is a challenging disease, and curing it will depend on a continual infusion of new talent," says
Gandara, a professor of hematology and oncology and one of the nation's foremost lung cancer specialists.
"The Institutional Research Grant program offers our institution an important means of supporting our
most promising young investigators."
To date the Cancer Center has received
nearly $600,000 in Institutional Research Grant funds and distributed the money among 20 junior faculty
members. The dean of the School of Medicine
has provided additional support to the program since its inception.
A local peer-review committee selects Institutional Research Grant recipients at UC Davis, scoring their
research proposals in much the same way as the National Institutes of Health.
Each awardee receives about $20,000, typically enough to fund a research project that yields preliminary
results in a pilot study.
The investigator then uses these initial studies to apply for larger grants from the American Cancer
Society, the National Cancer Institute, or other national
The American Cancer Society renews an institution's three-year grant based on the quality of its Institutional
Research Grant-funded work and the productivity of its awardees. UC Davis has won three renewals; it will
apply for a fourth this year.
The American Cancer Society launched its Institutional Research Grant program in 1947. "Support for beginning
investigators is a priority for the ACS," says Ginger Krawiec, national administrator of the Institutional
Research Grant program.
"The Institutional Research Grant program allows us to partner with research institutions to support
the early careers of cancer researchers. Moreover, individual awardees go on to publish and obtain national
peer-reviewed grants. The program also promotes strong relationships between the local ACS and the institution
and its awardees."
The Davis advantage
Many of the UC Davis Institutional Research Grant awardees do not work at the Cancer
Center. Institutional Research Grant funds are available to promising young cancer researchers no
matter which department, school or college they are associated with.
At UC Davis, cancer-related work takes place not only in the School
of Medicine, but also in the School of Veterinary
Medicine, Division of Biological Sciences,
College of Engineering, and College
of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, among others.
"We call this the 'Davis advantage,'" says Joel Kugelmass, an administrative analyst at the
Cancer Center who helps oversee the
Institutional Research Grant program. "Our cancer program benefits from the varied disciplines of
these other schools, colleges and divisions."
Neil Hunter, an assistant professor in the Center
for Genetics and Development, is a good example. His Institutional Research Grant allowed him to investigate
the functions of a gene called BLM. Individuals who inherit a defective BLM gene are at increased risk
for many forms of cancer. Understanding how the gene defect operates could point the way to future therapies
aimed at correcting cancer-related chromosomal instability.
"Receiving the grant was a great confidence boost at an early and unsure stage of my academic career,"
Julie Sutcliffe-Goulden, an assistant professor of biomedical
engineering, is another case in point. Her Institutional Research Grant allowed her to pursue her
work in molecular imaging. She radioactively labels small molecules that bind to certain cancers in laboratory
animals, then images the tumors using a miniaturized positron emission tomography (PET) scanner. Her aim:
to find a radioactive compound that, in combination with the miniaturized PET scanner, can reveal how
mouse models of human cancers progress and respond to therapy.
Zelanna Goldberg arrived at UC Davis Cancer
Center as an assistant professor of radiation oncology in 1999, eager to build on the promising work
she'd done in mentor J. Martin Brown's lab at Stanford.
"Receiving an Institutional Research Grant award allowed me to get on my feet," Goldberg says.
With it, she showed that an investigational anti-cancer drug, UCN-01, makes cancer cells more vulnerable
to radiation. The finding was a springboard to bigger grants, publication in Radiation Research
and her own laboratory. Today Goldberg's work is supported by grants from the UC Office of the
President, the Radiation Society of North America and the U.S. Department of Energy.
When promising young cancer investigators get the seed funding they need, everyone benefits: the scientists,
the institutions, and, most importantly, the patients.