April 1, 2020

The unmet needs of cancer do not pause. Neither does innovation.

Michele Cleary, PhD

New York City, as seen from our 2020 Symposium

It is truly amazing how much our world has changed in the three weeks since I shared my potential bright-side view of the circumstances that were about to befall us. It is now clear that SARS-CoV-2 had something quite different in mind than just a short-term reprieve from schedules overburdened with travel and meeting attendance, and we now find ourselves immersed in an all-out pandemic with lives being lost at an unprecedented rate worldwide, and New York City, the home of our foundation, serving as an epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S.

When I first shared my thoughts, some of the researchers in our network whose children were home from school alerted us to how the stresses they were facing with round-the-clock childcare and home schooling would impact their productivity. And shortly thereafter, more and more institutions forced “non-essential” research efforts to be suspended with scientists across the country experiencing the heartbreak of abandoning experiments in progress and culling precious animal models to facilitate the necessary physical distancing that is difficult to maintain in the normal academic setting.

As a philanthropic organization laser-focused on solving challenges in cancer, we brainstormed about charitable actions we might take during this unprecedented time. Our first approach was aimed at alleviating some of the stress face by our funded investigators. Our grant cycles are staggered throughout the year, and we have several funded projects that are approaching reporting deadlines in the next few months as well as grants coming up on their termination dates. Knowing that the current distractions will make it hard for some investigators and teams to pull together thoughtful and in-depth reports, we are working with each on a case by case basis to determine reasonable new deadlines.

Our second decision involved the unfortunately timed launch of one of our mainstay grant vehicles, our Emerging Leader Award, which is aimed at providing funding to early career laboratory leaders to support high-risk/high-reward research at a time in their careers in which they may tend to operate in a risk-averse manner. We debated delaying the launch and waiting for a more appropriate time to arise in the next few months. In the end, we came to admit that the unmet needs of cancer never pause and neither does innovation. Our future grant awardees may not be in the lab at this time, but that doesn’t mean their burning questions and blue-sky ideas have evaporated. And so, we launched on March 25th, but extended the deadline for receipt of letters of intent by one month to June 4th.

Another decision we made this month is one that is perhaps a bit controversial. We know that many foundations have pivoted to funding COVID-19 research, even if this type of research is not the primary focus of their mission. We made a very conscious decision not to fund research solely related to the virus because we know there will be other sources for this work, and, importantly, at the same time, many of the other sources of funding for cancer research will be negatively impacted by the fallout from the current situation.

To stay true to our mission, the needs of which will not pause during this unusual time, we will continue to drive towards solutions that will have positive impacts for cancer patients. We stand behind this approach even more as we learn that other programs for funding cancer research are being suspended, delayed, or substantially curtailed due to the negative financial implications faced by those organizations.

One last thought and one that I feel strongly about. I am concerned that those in the general public who don’t work directly with scientists as we do may think that scientific productivity will indeed grind to a halt during this period. Shutting down labs does not mean that scientists are not working. Despite challenges juggling family issues and lab contingency plans, scientists will continue to work on their projects in whatever way they can until they can re-enter the lab. In fact, a substantial proportion of their work is always done outside of the lab. With any scientific project, some of the longest work cycles involve: 1) in-depth research of relevant literature and planning of logical experimental approaches, as well as consulting with mentors and other experts to help with experimental design, troubleshooting, and brainstorming next steps; 2) the analysis of data, the iteration on the results of the initial analyses, and the probing of wider data sets with new questions spurred by those initial analyses; and 3) the preparation of publications, patents applications and new grant proposals.

I’ll take a small step back from the exuberance articulated in my last post around the hope for enormous productivity during a time when we are all learning new ways of working. Clearly, our research community, much like all other sectors of society, has taken a big hit from this pandemic. That said, I remain a true believer in the passion of scientists and know that they will persevere despite the barriers that are being thrown in their path. As always, we at The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research will be standing by to help clear those obstacles so that breakthroughs in cancer research can continue to advance.

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