Finding Cures Through Funding Research

Shannon Stott, PhD,  in her lab

A blood test to detect cancer?  Those were the headlines at the start of 2011 when Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company announced that it was partnering with Massachusetts General Hospital to develop and bring to market a sophisticated, noninvasive test that can detect tiny traces of cancer cells in a blood sample.

Not widely reported, however, was the fact that the American Cancer Society provided critical, timely research funding to two of the scientists on the team that invented the test.  Dino DiCarlo, Ph.D., received a one-year Society fellowship in 2007, and Shannon Stott, Ph.D., pictured here, recently concluded a three-year Society research grant.

The relatively small grant Dr. Stott received from the American Cancer Society ($138,000 over three years) tells a compelling story on the state of research funding. Her original grant application was rejected by the National Institutes of Health due to the high risk nature of the research. Meanwhile, her proposal received a very high rating from the panel of experts who review research proposed to the American Cancer Society. But budget constraints left her below the funding line, meaning while her proposal was worthy of funding, there were more approved proposals than there was funding. Fortunately, the New England Division of the American Cancer Society learned of her promising work, and secured funding from local donors to keep it going.

"At that time the lab had virtually no grant funding.  The American Cancer Society grant was the catalyst for major new developments, including large grant that allowed us to scale up and share our technology with other major cancer centers," said Dr. Stott.

“The CTC-Chip offers a unique opportunity for the detection of tumor cells from patients with early stage cancer, the ability to genetically characterize tumor cells without an invasive biopsy, and to determine responsiveness to new targeted cancer drugs,” Dr. Stott explained during a lab tour at the Biomicroelectromechanical Systems Resource Center and the MGH Cancer Center at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Researchers may find it difficult to secure funding to pursue innovative approaches to fight cancer, but the American Cancer Society remains committed to doing its part. As of January 25, 2011, the American Cancer Society is funding more than $468 million in multi-year grants, supporting 942 researchers, including $63.8 million for 145 scientists at 33 hospitals and institutions throughout New England. For instance, Dana-Farber has $6.2 million in Society grants in effect, and Yale has $7.2 million in Society research grants at the present time.

As noted above, not only is funding available from the Society’s national program, but the New England Division also funds top-rated research projects for which national funds are not available. Since 2002, 64 of these “pay-if” scientists have been supported by the New England Division with $14.1 million raised here.

To read more about the blood test to detect cancer that is in development, read Dr. Len's Blog. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP, is the deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society.