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NCI to Spend up to $17.5M for Provocative Questions Studies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – In a new initiative aimed at taking advantage of the recent knowledge and technological advances made possible by genomics, computational biology, and molecular biology, the National Cancer Institute plans to fund research focused on answering "provocative questions" about cancer.

Through two new funding opportunities that will award up to $17.5 million, NCI plans to use its Provocative Questions (PQ) program to spur cancer research into key problems that it identified over the past year through a collaborative process of stakeholder workshops.

"This is a terrific time for doing research on cancer," NCI Director Harold Varmus said in a video statement on the NCI Provacative Questions website.

"There are many great questions to try to answer, and progress is being made on many fronts," said Varmus. "But I have begun to appreciate the need to think about not only the questions that are self-evident, but the questions we've been working on for many years, the questions that are in the headlines every day about the nature of cancer as a cellular phenomenon, and many other things."

The institute distilled the results of the workshops down into 24 "game-changing" scientific questions that it wants researchers to use this funding to pursue.

These PQs were developed to build on specific advances in knowledge about cancer and cancer control; to address broad and difficult issues in cancer biology; to consider potential progress in the foreseeable future; and to address ways to overcome obstacles to achieving long-term goals.

These questions focus heavily on harnessing genomics and molecular biology approaches and using genetic knowledge about these diseases to hunt answers to specific problems.

Under the program, NCI will provide up to $10 million in fiscal 2012 for 15 to 20 R01 research project awards and between $5 million and $7.5 million for around 12 of its R21 exploratory development grants of up to $275,000 over two years.

In its RFAs, NCI said these questions "are meant to challenge cancer researchers to think about and elucidate specific problems in key areas of cancer research that are deemed important but have not received sufficient attention."

The 24 provocative questions NCI settled on fall into three broad areas. One type of problem focuses on ignored or neglected issues related to "intriguing older observations or issues that cancer researchers may have taken for granted but for which satisfactory, rigorous, research answers are still lacking," NCI stated.

A second class of question aims to build on recent findings that are perplexing, paradoxical, or reveal gaps in the current knowledge.

The third type of question reflects problems that once were perceived as particularly difficult to study but which now may be investigated through the use of recent discoveries or new technical advances, such as those in genomics or molecular biology.

For example, some of these provocative questions include:

• As genomic sequencing methods continue to identify large numbers of novel cancer mutations, how can we identify the mutations in a given tumor that are most critical to the maintenance of its oncogenic phenotype?

• As we improve methods to identify epigenetic changes that occur during tumor development, can we develop approaches to discriminate between "driver" and "passenger" epigenetic events?

• How do changes in RNA processing contribute to tumor development?

• Given the recent successes in cancer immunotherapy, can biomarkers or signatures be identified that can serve as predictors or surrogates of therapeutic efficacy?

"Because science is progressing so rapidly, we are uncovering new observations that need to be pursued," Varmus said.

"We're looking back at questions that were never satisfactorily answered in the past. We have new technologies that allow us to pursue things in a way that allow us to answer questions that have been mysterious, perplexing, forgotten, not know before, in ways that are less evident to the casual observer."

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