Building a Better Cancer Researcher: More Than the Sum of Our Parts


We have come a long way in the last 10 years in our understanding of the causes of cancer. Yet despite these advances, cancer-related deaths in North America now exceed those from heart disease and stroke. Together, these changes have led to increasing public pressure to accelerate the application of recent advances in understanding the basic science of cancer into clinical practice, patient care, and disease prevention. Naturally, this is coupled to increasing demand for individuals with the necessary skills and training to do these tasks--individuals who can understand the basic science and recognize its implications and potential, but who are also familiar with how we can translate these findings into new or improved treatment and prevention strategies.

Cancer research is an enormously broad field, spanning research foci from genetics, cell biology, and pharmacology through epidemiology and clinical trials, to patient management, quality-of-life studies, and health-services research. Within each of these areas, researchers have a focused understanding of how the battle against cancer needs to be fought in terms of improved prevention, treatment, and management. Yet, like the proverbial blind men, all trying to touch different parts of the elephant and put together a single picture of what the elephant looks like, each cancer researcher has frequently had a single view of the problem that doesn't take into account knowledge gained in these other, complementary research disciplines.

For example, within the cancer research community, there may be broad agreement that drug X is interesting. However, the pharmacologist may be interested primarily in the mechanism of action of drug X, the geneticist may wonder whether a mutations of its normal receptor affects drug X's action, while the oncologist may be interested in dosage and toxicity in specific disease types.

Combining the full range of available information on drug X gleaned from each of these perspectives would undoubtedly allow us to better interpret its mechanism of action and improve its efficacy. In a similar manner, researchers in biology, pathology, genetics, and epidemiology could bring together expertise for a better understanding of the combination of environmental and genetic influences on cancer occurrence. It seems obvious that pooling our resources can only improve our understanding of the disease and how best to manage it.

The next question, of course, is who will do the exciting work of coalescing these different areas of expertise? It is common practice for cancer researchers to train in a single discipline and develop an interest or expertise in another area as it becomes necessary. However, this is no real substitute for developing the broad view of cancer research as part of our early training. Such an approach would better prepares us to recognize and exploit those exciting opportunities in one discipline, which can contribute to advances in another that might not otherwise be appreciated. The need today in Canada is for broadly trained, transdisciplinary cancer researchers with the expertise to translate the advances made in research into clinical applications and health- care policies that ultimately reduce the societal burden of cancer.

Queen's University: Training in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research

The Queen's University Cancer Research Institute (QCRI) in Kingston, Ontario, is home to three internationally recognized cancer research groups, which together encompass essentially all aspects of cancer investigation, from tumour biology through clinical trials and epidemiology to research outcomes and health-policy development. Encouraging interaction between researchers with many different perspectives on cancer research is one of the primary goals of the institute. To achieve this goal, we have brought together the three different research groups into a single Cancer Research Institute building, where researchers and trainees in many different traditional disciplines can meet and exchange ideas.

To complement these informal interactions, QCRI, in conjunction with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Cancer Research Society, has developed a new and exciting Training Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research, with the goal of training young researchers in a broad understanding of this health issue.

Initially, program coordinators have focused on five broad research themes for the training program, addressing areas in which we all feel there is a significant need for future investigators in Canada. These include molecular epidemiology, cancer progression and intervention, cancer treatment and service delivery, drug development and experimental therapeutics, and cancer genetics and molecular diagnostics. The coordinators have also developed a series of exciting new courses complementing these themes; they emphasize our commitment to the transdisciplinary approach while drawing upon the breadth of expertise within the QCRI. These include courses in cancer epidemiology, public policy towards cancer, tumour biology, and experimental cancer diagnostics and therapeutics.

Trainees welcomed within our program include graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and post-MD fellows or health-care professionals with an interest in expanding their perspectives on cancer research. Our objective is to broaden horizons and encourage trainees and mentors alike to appreciate the breadth of cancer research by challenging them to develop transdisciplinary projects in which co-supervisors from different disciplines share their expertise and perspectives to broaden the training experience.

For example, a student with a background in epidemiology might embark on a study to examine how specific molecular markers may correlate with the risk of developing breast cancer, guided by appropriate supervisors with complementary research interests in these areas. This work would require the student to interact with mentors who know how to design cancer epidemiological studies, as well as basic-science mentors with knowledge of the definition, evaluation, and interpretation of molecular marker studies. In the end, the student develops the skills required to understand molecular marker assays and incorporate them into the disease models suggested by the epidemiological studies. A transdisciplinary researcher is born and, in the process, a novel approach to addressing the cancer problem may have been developed!

It is the development of these broadly trained transdisciplinary researchers of the future that our training program aims to foster. There is a great and growing need for researchers who understand the "language," skills, and resources of different, complementary disciplines and can bring together these disparate expertises. Our goal is to recruit and train this outstanding group of young investigators. They are critical to our future ability to diagnose, treat, and cure cancer.

Further details on the program, our mentors, goals, and requirements are described on our Web site or can be obtained directly by writing to Ms. Lois Mulligan, Queen's University Cancer Research Institute, Department of Pathology, Richardson Labs, Queen's University, Kingston ON Canada, K7L 3N6.

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