New ways to fight pancreatic cancer, a technique for the detection of invisible skin cancers, and a tool for uncovering the secrets of aggressive brain tumors are among the advances from the Bridge Project, a collaboration between MIT and Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DFHCC) that has yet to celebrate its fifth birthday.

Couple that with four patent applications, a startup, and 11 peer-reviewed scientific papers—all from only 15 teams of researchers, many of them together for less than two years—and you can understand why “all of us involved feel really good about the progress we’ve made,” says Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

David Livingston, deputy director of DFHCC, the largest federally designated comprehensive cancer center in the US, agrees, stressing the importance—and novelty—of bringing together engineers, scientists, and clinical investigators to tackle difficult medical problems. “The goal of the Bridge Project is to make major advances for cancer therapeutics and diagnostics. And the way we make advances is by collaboration between people with complementary interests, skills, and talents.”

In 2010 Livingston and Jacks, longtime friends, realized the potential for a formal collaboration between their two institutions, both powerhouses in cancer research. The National Cancer Institute has 65 designated cancer centers around the country; the Koch Institute and DFHCC are the only two in Massachusetts.

“We wanted to move beyond a model that was pervasive in our field, where institutions like MIT and Harvard felt it was important to go it alone. Now we recognize that it’s critical to join forces,” says Jacks, who is the David H. Koch Professor of Biology.

Thanks to gifts from several philanthropists and organizations, key among them Arthur Gelb ’61 and the Commonwealth Foundation for Cancer Research, the two established the Bridge Project to distribute peer-reviewed grants of $750,000 each over two years to teams composed of researchers from both MIT and DFHCC. Those grants, says Livingston, “are larger than many single project grants from the National Institutes of Health.”

And they’re getting results. One team, for example, uses Raman spectroscopy to visualize precancerous melanoma lesions on certain fair-skinned people. Without the technique, this early stage of cancer is invisible to the naked eye. With it, “the chance of missing these goes way down,” says Livingston, who is Emil Frei Professor of Genetics and Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Melanoma is much more curable when caught early.

The Bridge Project is now entering phase two. “We’ve built the bridge and there’s plenty of traffic flowing. Now it’s time to expand,” says Jacks, noting that “every year we leave on the table highly ranked and meritorious grants that we wish we could fund.” The 15 Bridge Project teams selected to date came from a pool of 84 applications.

The three-pronged goal of the expansion is to double the number of annual Bridge grants from four to eight over the next five years, provide Extension Grants for an additional year of support for projects moving toward clinical implementation, and create smaller Footbridge Grants to help establish proof of concept for early-stage ideas.

Jacks notes that “technology development in a vacuum is almost worthless.” The Bridge Project “applies those advances to critical problems in cancer, which brings meaning to the science and technology in a very fundamental way.”


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