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Bridge Project Q&A: “Big Idea” Winners on Bridging the River in Boston Cancer Research

Xconomy Boston — 

In the Boston area, two major centers of academic cancer research are separated by the Charles River, which, as local residents know, acts as a barrier in many ways. On the Boston side, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DFHCC) brings together researchers from seven Harvard-affiliated hospitals and schools, while in Cambridge, MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research is a nexus for MIT biologists, engineers, and materials scientists.

Getting the two centers collaborating more was something that David Livingston, DFHCC’s deputy director, and his longtime colleague and friend Tyler Jacks, head of the Koch Institute, were talking about several years ago. It turned out that Art Gelb, a retired tech entrepreneur, philanthropist, and donor to both MIT and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, was thinking the same thing. So the three co-founded the Bridge Project about six years ago with some seed funding from Gelb.

The project, led by Jacks and Livingston, funds collaborative research conducted by researchers from MIT and the DFHCC. The aim is to bring biologists, bioengineers, and clinical researchers together to move new treatment strategies into the clinic, particularly for cancers that have historically not responded well to treatment, such as brain and pancreatic cancers. Jacks (pictured at right) and Livingston (left) accepted the Xconomy “Big Idea” Award for the Bridge Project at our inaugural awards gala on September 26.

So far, the Bridge Project has raised more than $35 million from Gelb and his wife Linda, as well as from other donors and organizations, and has given out 37 grants to teams from 77 labs in Boston and Cambridge. Funded research projects range from finding new ways to treat tumors that have spread to the brain, to new immunotherapies for melanoma. Last year, the project started funding early-stage clinical trials, including one that will soon begin on a vaccine for a specific form of lung cancer. “We’re now seeing several of our funded projects over the last five years that are now in the clinic,” says Jacks. “That’s been extremely satisfying to us.”

I spoke with Livingston and Jacks before the awards gala last month. Here are edited excerpts of our conversations.

Xconomy: What made you think the Bridge Project would be a good idea?

Tyler Jacks: The work that we do at MIT has a very basic science and technology orientation, and it’s very important for us to be able to accelerate the translation of that science and technology towards clinical benefit. Because we don’t have patients at MIT, we need a venue, a structure, in which to do that. So a partnership with a leading cancer hospital and leading hospitals through the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center made good sense.

David Livingston: We thought there was a critical mass, between the two institutions, of people who are (a) real good scientists and (b) real good clinical investigators. We’ve worked with one another informally for years, decades actually, to positive outcomes. We all liked each other. There’s tremendous amity between Harvard and MIT in medical and especially cancer research. And so we thought we ought to try to build a new program that was 50-50, completely collaborative, that would attract grant applications from the best and brightest at Harvard and MIT. They would form, in most cases, new teams. There are wicked smart people on both sides of the river, but when you put their brains together, two and two equal six.

X: What are the challenges in bridging the river between the two institutions?

TJ: It’s hard to get cancer researchers to collaborate, let alone development offices and institutions to collaborate, but we have. We had to get buy-in from our institutions and from our development offices, which we did get. We had to get buy-in from our faculty, which we did get.

We also had to find ways for researchers to get in touch with one another. That river can be a substantial barrier. So we’ve had workshops and information sessions to increase community-building, where people got to showcase their work and look for collaborators.

DL: One challenge is to raise enough money each year to be sure that we could put forward a full request for applications. Secondly, to be sure that that number didn’t go down. In fact, it’s gone up. But we always need more. The demand outstrips the supply. We have a peer review exercise, in which we pay about one-fourth of the grant [proposals] that come to us. That’s big by NIH standards. [Editor’s note: The National Institutes of Health funding success rate for research projects is about 19 percent.] I hope we can keep it at that, and make it even bigger. The grants that we see are genuinely a pleasure to read.

This is the third in a series of articles profiling the 2017 Xconomy Award Winners. Read the previous articles about Lita Nelsen (Lifetime Achievement) and Rob Perez (Community Contribution of the Year).