GW plans cancer research institute

GW is planning a major cancer research center, likely to capture space in the Science and Engineering Hall, to win tens of millions of dollars of federal grants over the next decade.

The cancer initiative, expected to be formally announced in April, will trigger a yearlong search for a high-profile leader to attract more researchers and grants. An institute woud cost at least $10 million to start up, Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said.

The University would then look for millions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health, which has funding pockets for new centers, to help pay for a full institute, Chalupa said. It would likely launch about five years after a leader is hired.

“We have some of the best people in the country here in cancer research,” Chalupa said. “But the research is some over here, some over there. If we bring those people together, bring in a leader, bring in some additional people, we’ll be very competitive.”

Chalupa said the University would aim to earn designation from the National Cancer Institute. There are 67 designated centers, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which must demonstrate clinical and research expertise.

The newly proposed expansion would bring multiple colleges together in support of cancer research in a “more significant scale, because work in cancer can’t be casual. It’s a huge scale,” Provost Steven Lerman said.

The University’s cancer research strengths mostly lie in prostate and breast cancer. One breast cancer specialist, professor of medicine Sidney Fu, said the “high priority” research will push collaboration among radiologists, engineers and computer scientists.

Still, he said he saw potential roadblocks, such as difficulties procuring adequate funding and facilities.

“For cancer research now I think the main challenge is that it is so hard to get funding,” Fu said. “There are limited resources now.”

The center would also replace the GW Cancer Institute, which Fu said has been mostly inactive and without a director for about two years.

The University-wide emphasis on cancer comes on the heels of significant medical research projects on autism and neuroscience. Chalupa’s office is also trying to fundraise about $10 million for an autism research center, and it started a neuroscience institute three years ago, which has attracted four new researchers.

Those subject areas would potentially compete for lab space in the Science and Engineering Hall after it opens in 2015, Chalupa said. The University will reserve the building’s seventh and eighth floors for interdisciplinary research centers that have the outside grants and faculty forte to justify the space’s extra costs.

The costs of renovating those floors are not included in the projected $275 million projected for initial construction of the whole building.

But administrators are hoping the new research areas like neuroscience, autism and cancer will create healthy competition between GW’s research institutes and faculty vying for space and funding.

“It needs to be more than, ‘We are the smartest group and this is the most important cause,’ ” Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger said. “It’s, ‘What’s the business plan? How will you fund it? What’s the future? How is this sustainable?’ ”

Administrators have held off on assigning departments, colleges or research centers those floors, a competition that has created “good tension” between scholars trying to nab that space, Morsberger said. GW’s top academic leaders will decide whether the space will feature mostly laboratories, cubicles or teaching space. The rest of the building was divvied up between science and engineering departments last year.

“There are lots of people who want those floors. There are people and departments who feel they may have the donors or research power or the opportunity to publish important papers or works that would change the world,” Morsberger said. “But I don’t think we as an institution are in a position to say one over another right now.”

Chalupa added that the School of Public Health and Health Services is also advocating to secure wet labs for public health research. The school will get its own $75 million building in 2014, but it will feature dry lab space.

Anchoring part of the hall with a dedicated research space could help kickstart fundraising for the most expensive building in the University’s history, which had only attracted 6 percent of its $100 million fundraising goal by December.

Morsberger said donors have shown interest in research areas like cancer, but the University had not drawn significant gifts yet. The institute would also be contingent on generating millions of federal research grants, which have been tight amid stagnant federal agency budgets.

Chalupa said a formal plan for a cancer research initiative would involve faculty input and that the impetus to start a center came from professors’ research interests.

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