Nov 19 2008

A guest post from Maria Laura Avantaggiati

by at 6:01 pm

I hope everybody found our recent Town Hall to be informative and useful. I know that I find it very valuable for all of us to get together for these types of updates. And you can be assured that we will continue to have these Town Halls as long as people are interested to hear what we have to say.

Everyone heard a lot about what’s happening at the Town Hall meeting, so I don’t have a lot of new information to share with you.

I did have a nice meeting with the Gala chairs last Monday as we start planning for next year’s Gala. While the event planning is obviously at its earliest stages, we are committed to bring it back – freshly updated – and continuing to be the premier celebration of the accomplishments and mission of Lombardi.

Below you will find a guest post from Maria Laura Avantaggiati, which is in part a response to one of my recent posts. Have a great week.

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Dr. Maria Laura Avantaggiati

Dr. Maria Laura Avantaggiati

I am personally pleased that Obama won this election, and several editorials on Nature have outlined his positions on novel initiatives that he plans to undertake. One of them includes the reinstatement of the appointment of a science advisor who reports directly to the President, and apparently Dr. Varmus has been playing a somewhat equivalent role during his presidential campaign. Therefore, we can anticipate that his choices for this position, as well as for the NIH and NCI directors, will be in a category of people who are in touch with the scientific community.

On the other hand, Obama’s proposals and projections to redouble NIH funding will have to deal with the challenges of this economy of the next two years. I am also certain that within the budget for science, the first priority will be on development of alternative energy. Thus, we may not see a real impact on grant success rates for quite awhile.

There are additional concerns that I would like to share, and that are independent of the NIH budget. While I do not entirely disagree with all the changes that the Zherouni’ administration has introduced in the NIH grant programs, there will be negative tails from his policy. Zherouni and Scarpa have reshaped the grant review process, and starting next year the size of RO1s will be similar to that of R21s. It can be anticipated that this will favor large laboratories with a higher track record of publications. While a few years back we could get an RO1 on great ideas and work that was not yet published, this will be highly unlikely, if not impossible, in the years to come.

This is worrisome, especially when we think about the explosion of resources and technology that comes from the biotech companies. Certain companies such as Origene, Genescript and others have expression vectors-, antibodies- and siRNA- ready for thousands of the human and mouse ORFs. At the cost of 30K (not so unreasonable after all!) Taconics offers transgenic or knockout mice strains for 20,000+ genes, many of which have not been published yet, and for which preliminary information about the phenotype (whether embryonic lethal or not), is already known.

Today, if we are working on a new gene and have thousands of dollars to spend, in a few weeks we could have cDNAs, antibodies, siRNAs and a mouse model that could make our science really competitive in time. And time is at the essence of our work. This again will give an advantage to large laboratories. Without the thousands, we are back to the standard, old fashion, time consuming, laboratory techniques.

When we look at papers that are published on high impact journals, and RO1 grants the get funded in study sections, it is really the techniques and the resources that the laboratories employ that make the difference. The difference is between being able to ask questions at a mechanistic level, or simply describe a phenomenon.

So, how can we remain competitive, and keep up with the fast pace at which science is moving in a period of financial constraints? Obviously there is no easy solution, One of the initiatives that I thought about, and I discussed individually with some of our collegues, is to programmatically (and Departmentally) invest money in purchasing key, cutting edge reagents that could serve the purpose of advancing projects with potential for PO1s applications, which could act as research catalysts for multiple investigators. We could programmatically invest in salary support for key personnel as well, such as one technician or one post-doctoral fellow who could work on the development of such projects. This could be done in a competitive fashion, with intra-departmental grant applications. Similarly to what is being done with IRG grants, except with a more sizeable budget, and by keeping applications within the Lombardi Cancer Center.

May be it is a surrealistic proposal. Is this something that Dr. Weiner and other colleagues would find reasonable and feasible?

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Nov 07 2008

A Great Week

by at 9:26 am

Sorry I missed you last week, but I was a little busy. We had an opportunity to host a delegation from the largest hospital in China last week. The Chinese PLA 301 General Hospital – also known as Hospital 301 – is, I am told, the Chinese equivalent of a hybrid of Massachusetts General Hospital and Walter Reed Hospital. The chairman of the Chinese Traditional Medicine Department presented his work on using traditional medicines to limit radiation therapy-related injury to the lung, and several Lombardi investigators described our work in drug discovery and establishing G-DOC. There’s strong interest from both sides in continuing to explore collaboration opportunities.

It was also very interesting to be a guest for dinner at the Chinese Embassy where I learned the elaborate rituals for drinking shots of a traditional liquor called Maotai. I lost count after the 7th toast, but our hosts seemed to have a very good time.

However, the true highlight of the week for me occurred on Wednesday. I was in Philadelphia for a cancer center site visit and the baseball gods decreed that my beloved Phillies should win the World Series while I was in town. I got to join a horde of surprisingly well-behaved Philadelphians in an impromptu victory parade that lasted well into the night. Hence, the absence of a blog last week…

Like many of you, I was up far too late on election night this week. It’s hard to know how the changes in the administration and Congress will affect the work we do here at Lombardi. However, President-Elect Obama has previously indicated a desire to double the NCI budget in 5 years. I don’t have to tell you how I would feel if he and Congress are able to deliver on that particular promise.

Harriet and I are wondering whether we should watch the inaugural parade in person, from our home, or if we should get out of town. We’ll probably hang around because it should be quite a remarkable occasion.

And while I can’t promise that next week’s Town Hall meeting will be as remarkable as a Presidential Inauguration, I do hope to see you all there.

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