A recent push to focus and enhance cancer research efforts in the University system got a boost this past year with more than 30 Urbana campus cancer researchers joining the University of Illinois Cancer Center. A planning meeting was held recently at the Beckman Institute to take the next steps toward turning science into results that could greatly aid clinicians and patients in future efforts to detect and treat the disease.
The Cancer Center is part of the Office of the Vice-President for Health Affairs, created in 2010 for oversight of the U. of I. Hospital and Health Sciences System and to bring together the clinical mission of the system’s hospitals with the research and teaching efforts of the three campuses. The planning meeting was jointly organized by Beckman Institute, Division of Biomedical Sciences and the Cancer Center. As stated on their website, the Cancer Center is the only cancer center in the State of Illinois with links to six health sciences colleges, as well colleges of engineering and liberal arts and sciences, and regional campuses in Rockford, Peoria, and Urbana-Champaign.
Beckman Institute researcher Rohit Bhargava is Associate Director of the Cancer Center for the Urbana-Champaign campus and coordinated the Cancer Center planning meeting held here Oct. 18. That meeting included Cancer Center researchers, clinicians, and postdoctoral and student researchers, from Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Rockford. Bhargava said the meeting was a science-directed effort to enhance cancer research efforts within the University of Illinois system.
“We have come together in the Cancer Center, but now we want to find out the scientific directions to focus on,” he said. “What are the scientific priorities and how can we leverage the unique facilities at every place and unique expertise on every campus to pull together a larger effort that we wouldn’t be able to do by ourselves? It is for a broader scientific coming together.”
The drive to bring together more cancer researchers from the UIUC campus took off following another event held at Beckman, last year’s Innovation Summit sponsored by the Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Research. Bhargava led a workshop on creating an interdisciplinary cancer-focused community at the U. of I. that also featured Beckman Director Art Kramer and many Institute researchers. Bhargava said 75 people from campus attended that workshop, and that about 35 joined the Cancer Center, which limits membership to those with cancer-focused and funded research.
“They came together and said ‘what are we here on campus going to do about cancer studies and research on campus?’” he said. “One of the outcomes from that meeting was that we knew we needed stronger clinical connections and complementary expertise at other places. We have some at Carle, some with Mayo, and Provena. An additional good place to look is in house, within our own University system.”
That meeting resulted in more UIUC cancer researchers joining the Cancer Center, with a goal toward enhancing diverse research efforts through not only potential or ongoing research collaborations, but also by sharing resources and knowledge. The first steps toward reaching those goals were taken at the meeting in October, with an emphasis on the science going forward.
“What we wanted to do with this workshop was not just introduce people and their programs to fellow members, but also to think about how this cancer center can have an impact in five to 10, 20 years,” Bhargava said. “What are the scientific areas we should focus on, what is the greatest interest on campus and otherwise? So we kicked off what we hope will become regular events.”
The three research areas emphasized at the planning meeting were pre-clinical animal models, computational genomics, and tumor microenvironment. Bhargava said these three thematic areas are only the beginning.
“The idea was ‘what can we do in these three areas together which would greatly advance the science against cancer?’” he said. “As we go along over the next few months, we’ll start seeing other more focused workshops, maybe in partnership with others. It could be campus only, or with Carle, and with other themes to explore. Utilizing resources, reducing redundancies in research programs, and aiding younger faculty are goals for the program.”
Bhargava elaborated on those goals.
“One of the major functions of the Cancer Center is to promote science that would otherwise not be possible,” he said. “The first thing that was accomplished at the meeting was that we agreed to have a dialogue on campus and with the right partners from other places on how to work on bigger issues that cannot be solved in a single lab. How do we become more efficient as a campus so that we are not all reinventing all the same tools and setting up the same infrastructure? How can we get together and build something that would be useful to many, rather than just one?
“Across our campus there is just not enough dialogue. The first accomplishment of the workshop was to enhance dialogue in a few focus areas. The second was arriving at very basic recommendations and next steps to guide future efforts. Those kinds of discussions are important and it’s very important for everyone to have a voice in those. A diversity of scholars providing input into what we should be doing collectively was a third accomplishment.”
Bhargava is an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering and member of Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology group, with a research focus on developing chemical imaging techniques in the fight against cancer. He expects Beckman to play a key role in future UIUC Cancer Center efforts.
“The role of Beckman is very important in this effort,” Bhargava said. “We have the new HABITS initiative at the Beckman Institute. These workshops are great examples of fostering multi-investigator activity that the theme is focused on. The goal would be to spark research projects that are larger than a few labs coming together.
“Beckman provides the potential physical home for such activity. The culture and infrastructure here is already geared toward multi-investigator, large groups of people, working together, and the Beckman administration has been highly supportive of these efforts.”