Conversations with cancer researchers: toward building an integrated cancer research program

On 17th April 2014, approximately 50 cancer researchers from various scientific disciplines engaged in a stimulating conversation on fostering collaborative interdisciplinary cancer research in the Faculty of Health Sciences. The seminar was hosted by the Cancer Research Initiative (CRI) and included short talks from basic (Professors Jonathan Blackburn and Virna Leaner), clinical (Professor Alan Davidson and Dr Jeanette Parkes), and public health (Professor Jennifer Moodley and Dr Lindsay Farrant) scientists. Speakers outlined their current cancer research and highlighted opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.  The short talks were followed by a group discussion, facilitated by Professor Denver Hendricks, on building collaborative integrated cancer research in the Faculty.

Professor Tania Douglas, Deputy Dean of Research, opened the seminar and emphasized that in order to conduct collaborative research, researchers must be able to speak confidently with scientists from other disciplines. She went on to state that the seminar was aimed at stimulating conversations and collaborations among researchers and will be invaluable in developing competitive interdisciplinary cancer research proposals.

It was clear that some collaborative cancer research groups exist in the Faculty, however there is potential for even greater collaboration. This will require researchers to go beyond their comfort zones. Challenges raised included the high clinical workload that impacted on research time, human resource and funding constraints, lack of bio banking facilities and difficulty linking clinical and bio-specimen data. It was suggested that basic science PhD and Masters students work closely with clinicians, and that clinician researchers have exposure to laboratory scientists as part of their training.  Professor Moodley mentioned that the CRI is trying to secure funding that will be ring fenced for PhD and Masters students undertaking cancer related research and that applicants will be expected to work in an interdisciplinary research team. The potential for greater interface between public health and basic scientists was also discussed, particularly relating to screening, surveillance and risk factor identification.

The CRI will be incentivising and supporting interdisciplinary research by funding 3 pilot projects (R50 000 per project). To be eligible for the funding, project teams will need to include researchers from two or more scientific domains (basic, clinical or public health). This funding will enable groups of researchers from different scientific domains to work together and obtain preliminary data needed for larger competitive interdisciplinary cancer research grant submissions. The call for proposals will be released in May 2014.

The seminar concluded with commitment from researchers in all three scientific domains to work collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries to address the growing cancer burden.

Report by Jennifer Moodley