Transforming how we treat—and beat—cancer takes dedicated effort from top-notch researchers. But simply attracting talented scientists to the field and funding their research isn’t enough. New researchers need additional skills to succeed and they learn these skills best from a mentor in a supportive environment. After realizing this need for an appropriate environment and mentoring opportunities, the University of New Mexico Cancer Center developed a program around an American Cancer Society (ACS) Grant that was first awarded in 1992, and has been renewed every three years for the past 20 years. The ACS awards Institutional Research Grants (IRGs) as block grants that the institution then awards to individual beginning investigators to initiate cancer research projects.
“This grant has launched a lot of careers,” says Dr. Janet Oliver, Regents’ Professor of Pathology and the Principal Investigator for the ACS Institutional Research Grant (IRG) from 1992 until 2010. (A Principal Investigator is the scientist responsible for the administration of a grant.) “Our distinguished alumni include Dr. Bridget Wilson (1994), who is now Professor of Pathology and Director of the Cancer Center’s Hematological Malignancies program, Dr. Richard Larson (1996), who is now Vice-Chancellor for Research in the Health Sciences Center and Dr. Stuart Winter (1999), who is now Vice-Chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics and Chief of Pediatric Oncology.”
Another alumna of the program is Michelle Ozbun, PhD, now Co-Leader of the Women’s Cancers Program and UNM Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1998, Dr. Ozbun received IRG funding to establish her research program on human papillomavirus (HPV) infections and their role in cancers. She subsequently obtained additional grants to further her research. Today Dr. Ozbun is the principal investigator overseeing the IRG, which renewed in 2010 with a budget of $360,000 for three years. With the help of a review committee of basic, clinical and population-based cancer researchers, she oversees the program that supports the young investigators who receive funding through this grant.
The grant is renewed every 3 years. “It’s a highly competitive renewal process,” says Dr. Oliver, “and the success of the renewal is really dependent upon the success of the awardees. They need to be able to get external grants and publications.” So Drs. Oliver and Ozbun support the awardees with a mentorship program that helps them to write stronger grant proposals and to better manage their research and their labs.
Many initial proposals are not awarded but the IRG review committee, with the help of Program Manager Ryan Tanner, makes certain that each submitted proposal receives an honest, realistic, yet encouraging critique. “Most researchers are awarded an IRG on their second try,” says Dr. Oliver. The applicants are required to identify and obtain advice from a research and/or clinical faculty mentor. The review committee may also match a researcher with additional mentors. “Mentoring is one of my intertwined projects,” says Dr. Ozbun. “I do my best to be sure people in the program are engaged; that mentors have access to best mentoring practices, and that mentees learn how to be mentored, how to ask for mentoring, and to know that they can be mentored by a number of different people.”
The result is a program that has enjoyed tremendous success. At the UNM Cancer Center, the IRG has helped launch the careers of some 64 researchers, many of whom—like Dr. Ozbun—are now mentoring the next generation of cancer researchers and several of whom have moved on to bigger roles while continuing their cancer research. The grant has also drawn cancer researchers from a wide span of backgrounds. “As well as biologists and oncologists, we’ve funded quite a few materials scientists, chemists, and physicists who bring new tools to understand and treat cancer,” says Dr. Oliver. The IRG also sets aside funds to study cancer survival and its attendant quality-of-life issues. “We work really hard to get people to survive but then there’s a gap in how well they live afterward,” Dr. Ozbun says. So, the ACS sets aside IRG funds specifically for research in treatment and social and psychological areas.
Besides cancer research, the ACS IRG program gives researchers opportunities beyond the lab, too. “It’s a phenomenal experience,” Dr. Ozbun says. “I’ve been very involved with the New Mexico chapter of the ACS since getting my first ACS grant. I’ve attended different events, such as Relay for Life and Wine for a Cause, and have been a speaker at many different fundraising events over the past 15 years. There’s a lot of community service and community interaction that a researcher can get involved in.” Dr. Winter shares her commitment, serving as Medical Director for ACS Camp Enchantment that lets kids with cancer enjoy ordinary pleasures for a week each year. And UNM IRG alumnus Dr. Larson cofounded Cancer Services of New Mexico, an organization that provides services to reduce cancer suffering for New Mexico's families.
“The IRG grant focuses faculty on cancer-related investigations early in their careers, which helps them to stay in cancer research,” says Dr. Oliver. Dr. Ozbun agrees, “The new researchers help us build the UNM Cancer Center and we help them at the beginning of their careers. This grant creates a win-win for everyone.”
About the ACS IRG Program at the UNM Cancer Center
The ACS IRG Program requests grant proposals twice a year. Any faculty or researcher who has not yet received external peer-reviewed funding may apply. The program also provides community support for cancer events, such as Camp Enchantment (watch a video of the fun at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNHBEk_o9fc) and the Relay for Life, through the New Mexico chapter of the American Cancer Society. Information about Cancer Services of New Mexico may be found at (http://www.cancerservicesnm.org/).
For additional information about speaking engagements, community event support and grant applications, please contact Mr. Ryan Tanner, Program Manager, at RTanner@salud.unm.edu
About the UNM Cancer Center
The UNM Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center in the state. One of just 67 NCI-designated cancer centers nationwide, the UNM Cancer Center is recognized for its scientific excellence, contributions to cancer research and delivery of medical advances to patients and their families. It is home to New Mexico’s largest team of board-certified oncology physicians and research scientists, representing every cancer specialty and hailing from prestigious institutions such as MD Anderson, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. The UNM Cancer Center treats more than 65 percent of the adults and virtually all of the children in New Mexico affected by cancer, from every county in the state. In 2010, it provided care to more than 15,800 cancer patients. The Center’s research programs are supported by nearly $60 million annually in federal and private funding. Learn more at http://cancer.unm.edu.