Late last week we received formal notification from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that our long-standing collaboration with the Mayo Clinic known as the “Iowa-Mayo Lymphoma Specialized Program of Research Excellence” or “SPORE” for short, has been refunded for another 5 years. This program has been funded continuously by the NCI for the past 15 years. We now know we will be funded for years 16 through 20. Like most cancer research grants, funding decisions on SPORE grants are based on a robust peer review process and are highly competitive. Needless to say, we were thrilled to hear that our SPORE was viewed positively by our peers.
Our ongoing success is based on important principles that we established when we first started working together as a team 15 years ago. These are not principles that I learned in medical school or during my training in cancer immunology. I learned them much earlier. Indeed, I learned these principles while earning my favorite diploma (that is on the very top of my wall of diplomas in my office, despite my name being spelled wrong). The principles I learned – in nursery school – are in essence that good things will happen if you are not selfish, work together and do what’s right.
Fast forward about 40 years after I earned that treasured diploma. I was at a lymphoma meeting with my friend and colleague from the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Thomas Witzig, discussing the NCI’s announcement that it was going to fund major SPORE grants in lymphoma. We shared that we each were thinking about applying, but that we each realized a grant from either Iowa or Mayo would be a longshot. As we talked, it became apparent that our lymphoma research strengths were complementary. In areas of research where Iowa was limited, Mayo was strong, and vice versa. We quickly realized we would be more competitive, and indeed more productive in our research, if we worked together.
At the time, the typical SPORE was based at a single institution. If we were going to work together, we had to establish principles for how we would do so as both individuals and institutions. First, we agreed that the two of us would be equal partners in all decisions even though the grant would be formally based at Iowa. Second, we agreed that all decisions would be based on what is best for the overall effort, not what is best for each institution individually. We also agreed to work together on specific research projects as much as possible. All principles I learned at the age of 5.
These principles have served us extraordinarily well. We have made all decisions together based on what is best for the SPORE and our ability to contribute to advances that will help our patients. By and large, the funding from the SPORE has been equally split between Iowa and Mayo through the years, but I have advocated for increased funding going to Mayo if a Mayo project was particularly strong, and Tom has done the same for a strong Iowa project. Over the past 5 years, 48 peer-reviewed lymphoma research publications came out of the SPORE that have authors from both Iowa and Mayo. We work together on gathering tissue and blood samples and link them to a system that tracks how patients are doing. This effort has grown into what is one of the world’s most robust and valuable lymphoma registries, expanded to include multiple other institutions. It has allowed us to make discoveries that have changed the way lymphoma is treated worldwide. For example, our team determined that low levels of Vitamin D at the time of diagnosis of most types of lymphoma correlate with a worse outcome. Patients are now tested for Vitamin D levels and given supplements if their levels are low. We would have never known about this if we hadn’t agreed to work together many years ago.
What are we going to do for the next 5 years? Each of the 4 major research projects supported by the SPORE involves outstanding researchers from both Iowa and Mayo, so the collaborative spirit continues. Project one will explore how lymphoma cells turn off the immune system thereby protecting themselves from immune destruction. Project two involves two clinical trials exploring novel ways to modify a lymphoma node to reteach the immune system that lymphoma cells don’t belong and should be eliminated. Project three will evaluate novel treatments for lymphoma based on the unique metabolism of the lymphoma cells. Project four will explore genetic predictors of poor outcome so patients at risk can be identified earlier. All of these projects are based on prior research done through the SPORE collaboration. The SPORE will continue to support novel ideas as well as new researchers. More details on the research that will be supported by the SPORE renewal and the names of the superb investigators at Iowa and Mayo who made it possible, can be found here.
We are making progress in lymphoma research (indeed all cancer research) faster than ever before, and it is a fantastic being part of a highly successful and collaborative team that is contributing to that progress. What I learned completing my course in painting, clay, climbing and playdough, holds true in lymphoma research as well. Good things do indeed happen if you are not selfish, work together and do what’s right.