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NCI Gives Harvard $40M to Create New Small-Molecule Library

NEW YORK, March 12 - Harvard University will host a new $40 million molecular target lab that will build a comprehensive library of small-molecule probes for genes relevant to cancer.


The new Molecular Targeting Laboratory, funded by the National Cancer Institute through its program in cancer genomics, aims to develop a systematic and comprehensive chemical database of compounds that act upon cancer genes that can be used in basic research and drug and diagnostic discovery. It will also host screening technologies so that researchers may quickly identify relevant compounds.


The project will "place in the hands of researchers the ability to perturb function of individual or multiple gene products in vitro and in vivo," said Robert Strausberg, the assistant to the NCI director who is overseeing the MTL program. Strausberg is also head of the NCI Cancer Genome Anatomy Program and its Mammalian Gene Collection.


Researchers have "done a lot in terms of defining genes, but the next leap is to understand what all these new genes do, what their potential role is with respect to cancer," he said. "The idea [with the MTL program] is not only to have the genes, but to probe the function of the genes in context of the development of cancer--to me, this is a key component overall of the cancer genomics program."


A researcher interested in prostate cancer, for example, might use NCI resources to identify a gene that is uniquely expressed in that disease and then use the new MTL library to identify a molecule that could be used to disrupt the gene's normal function. That, in turn, would allow the researcher to manipulate gene function in order to better understand the disease.


"In concept, it's pretty simple," added Strausberg. "What's really dramatically different and what the Harvard group brings to bear is this approach in a global sense. There are a lot of molecular target programs that are focused on particular genes [or pathways]. This is comprehensive. That's how this is different than any other program."


The new lab will begin functioning soon, and should have resources available within the year, said Strausberg. Its services and data will be publicly available both for academic and industry researchers.


At Harvard, the project, initially announced on Monday, will be connected to the university's Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology, which is itself a collaboration between Harvard University researchers and faculty from the medical school. It will be run by Stuart Schreiber, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology.


The NCI is funding the lab through a competitive contract, administered through the Science Applications International Corporation.


The government underwriting is slated to last at least five years. Strausberg said that NCI may decide to fund additional Molecular Target Laboratories in the future, but currently had no plans to do so.

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