Tom Hudson seems to have a knack for being where the excitement is. It makes sense, then, that he's moving from basic research to a more translational bent as he takes on his latest role as scientific director of the new Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
Hudson's genomics credentials are impressive. Starting in the mid-'90s, right after mapping a chunk of the human genome, he took on the post of assistant director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research. From there, he returned to his native Quebec to create the McGill University and Genome Quebec Innovation Centre. At the same time, his lab was also the driving force behind Canada's contribution to the HapMap project.
Late last year, however, Hudson decided to move west and take up the reins of the OICR, Canada's $350 million investment in translating cancer research findings into programs, technologies, and therapies. "What interested me was to go toward translational medicine," Hudson says. "Finding genes is becoming easy, but I wanted to go toward experimental therapeutics, and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to do so."
Part of his transition has involved traveling around to research labs in order to see how technology has been progressing in different scientific quarters. "I've learned more science in the last few months than I have in the last few years," he says, noting that other disciplines have been developing just as fast as, say, genotyping or sequencing. Imaging, in particular, he says, has already made huge bounds, including the ability to track a single cell in vivo. From his travels, Hudson sees "tremendous opportunities for merging technologies, such as imaging and genomics, or pathology with informatics," which he was not aware of before.
That said, just as with the fruits of genomics or proteomics, there are still barriers to getting these technologies to clinical settings. "What we do in our best labs is sometimes unaffordable in the clinic," Hudson says. Some of the key areas where he sees challenges are at the level of devising medical products, education, and healthcare services. In the case of cancer, he says, resolving these challenges means working on prevention, early diagnosis, novel therapeutics, and monitoring for other complications. A concrete way to make headway on these problems is a familiar one: build a pipeline for novel ideas, then implement them.
Hudson's own background in genomics has prepared him for thinking of innovative solutions to hard problems. Back in the early ‘90s, when extreme bottlenecks were encountered in his own genome mapping work, he brought in "engineers and biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and we laid out the whole problem and started fragmenting it into discrete things that had to be done." In a similar vein, Hudson sees translational cancer research as amenable to the same problem solving. "We basically have to build up something that can be used in the clinic, as opposed to the best research lab," he says.
The good news is that many of the principles are in place already for innovative cancer treatments; the trick is in merging them. In the case of early diagnosis, Hudson mentions an already established program for detecting very small cancers. To find the cancer, for instance, biomarkers and amplification technologies can be used. Once detected in the blood, top-of-the-line imaging equipment and fluorescent labels can be used to locate very small tumors. With the aid of 3D imaging and precise physics, he says, one could biopsy a tumor with millimeter-level technology. From there, it's only a matter of destroying minute levels of cancerous cells. So while the technologies and ideas exist, the OICR's effort is in getting it all to work together as a clinically accessible pipeline.
Hudson sees this as a long-term effort. "Translation is a high-risk activity," he says, "but while the challenges are certainly there, the opportunities and people are there as well." Over the next five years, he says the OICR will work on developing four or five large-scale projects in imaging, pathology, genomics, informatics, and healthcare services. In the more near term, he will work on recruiting researchers and building teams to get the clinically based objectives off the ground. Hudson, for his part, will likely keep on learning the translation curve.