U.S. cancer institute cancels nanotech research centers

The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, will halt funding next year for its long-running Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNEs), which are focused on steering advances in nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer. The shift marks nanotechnology’s “natural transition” from an emerging field requiring dedicated support to a more mature enterprise able to compete head to head with other types of cancer research, says Piotr Grodzinski, who heads NCI’s Nanodelivery Systems and Devices Branch, which oversees the CCNEs. “This doesn’t mean NCI’s interest in nanotechnology is decreasing.”

Nevertheless, cancer nanotechnology experts see the decision as a blow. “It’s disappointing and very shortsighted given the emergence of nanotechnology and medicine,” says Chad Mirkin, who directs a CCNE at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. CCNEs have spawned dozens of clinical trials for new drugs and drug delivery devices, as well as novel technologies for diagnosing disease, he says. “Cancer research needs new ways of making new types of medicines. Nanotechnology represents a way to do that,” he says.

Nanotechnology also has a unique place in cancer research, where making advances requires multiple disciplines, including chemistry, physics, cell biology, and patient care, to design novel drugs and drug carriers that can navigate the body and seek out and destroy tumors. “We’re talking about a different beast here,” says Michelle Bradbury, a radiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who co-directs the Sloan Kettering-Cornell University CCNE. “The center format is perfect for that.”

NCI launched eight CCNEs in 2005 for an initial 5-year term. Nine received funding in 2010 for the project’s second phase, and six in 2015 for phase three. In total, CCNEs received about $330 million over 15 years, Grodzinski says, with an additional $70 million in funding for training and other types of nanotechnology research centers. That, he says, represents between 10% to 20% of NCI’s funding for nanotechnology research, depending on the specific 5-year phase. NCI will continue to support nanotechnology through R01 and other grant mechanisms, Grodzinski says. But Bradbury and others are concerned that a more piecemeal funding approach might be less successful. “You might not see the integration between disciplines,” she says.