The Walther Cancer Foundation will invest $11 million to advance collaborative cancer research at Indiana University and Purdue University by supporting scientists through bioinformatics — an increasingly critical aspect of their work.
Bioinformatics involves managing and analyzing the massive amounts of data generated by scientific research — turning data into knowledge that could lead to new cancer treatments.
“We hope this gift enables scientists at IU and Purdue to dig more deeply and refine their studies so they can point out new pathways to good patient outcomes in cancer,” said Tom Grein, president and CEO of the Walther Cancer Foundation. “Sometimes you have so much data, it’s hard to comprehend where it’s leading you. I hope the data-driven analysis will uncover nuggets of opportunity that would otherwise never be seen.”
Income from the new Walther Cancer Foundation Bioinformatics Fund will continuously support bioinformatics personnel, technology, and other tools shared by the cancer research programs at both universities. In addition, IU and Purdue will make their own investments into the fund.
“The Walther Cancer Foundation leadership understands the central importance of data and analytics in developing better treatments and, ultimately, cures for cancer,” said IU School of Medicine Dean Jay L. Hess, MD, PhD, MPH. “We are tremendously grateful for their support and the confidence they have in our work.”
Timothy Ratliff, the Robert Wallace Miller Director of the Purdue Center for Cancer Research, said the latest gift from the Walther Foundation is a continuation of a longstanding collaboration, commitment and investment that will build on the center’s success in cancer drug discovery and development — and will help sustain the center’s computational genomics and bioinformatics core for years to come. “Once again, we are grateful to the Walther Cancer Foundation’s vision and generosity, which is so important to our research and success. This continuing partnership, plus our own investments and fundraising, will secure what we’ve already established and enable us to grow into the future.”
Kelvin Lee, M.D., named this week as the new director of the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center and the H.H. Gregg Professor of Oncology, said having strong capabilities in bioinformatics is essential to cancer research.
“The genetic, biochemical, cellular and immune pathways that can lead to cancer are extraordinarily complex and intertwined. Recent cutting-edge advances in technology means that researchers now have unprecedented amounts of data on these pathways, but this seriously challenges our ability to analyze these huge mounds of information to make sense of what is actually going on,” Lee said. “We are fortunate that the Walther Cancer Foundation understands that breakthroughs require the expertise and the tools, like artificial intelligence, to help us analyze all this data so we can understand what’s really important.”
This level of collaboration and sharing of a key resource like a bioinformatics core is unusual among a pair of National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers. But it also reflects the complementary nature of the two institutions.
Purdue’s Center for Cancer Research is a basic science cancer research center with more than 110 researchers that is a leader in biomedical engineering and cancer drug development.
The IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is a comprehensive cancer center with nearly 250 cancer researchers who conduct basic lab work and drug development but who are also engaged in clinical care and population health research.
“Each of them has different capabilities, different levels of expertise, different interests,” Grein said. “But when you get scientists to collaborate, the outcomes are better.”
Since its founding in 1985, the Walther Cancer Foundation has invested more than $165 million in cancer-focused medical research and in research and education aimed at supporting cancer patients and their families.
Walther has previously supported cancer bioinformatics at IU and Purdue on a year-to-year basis. This new gift establishes a fund that will ensure the bioinformatics work continues in perpetuity.
The Walther Foundation endowment provides the opportunity to develop the expertise and the tools that are needed to face current and future challenges in biology and the cancer field, said Majid Kazemian, an assistant professor in Purdue’s departments of Biochemistry and Computer Science. His research focuses on integrating computational and experimental approaches to study pathogen interaction with host cells and immune system in infectious diseases and cancers caused by pathogens.
“The Purdue University Center for Cancer Research has nearly 100 investigators who are actively engaged in understanding molecular mechanisms of various diseases including lung, liver and prostate cancers, many of which have begun to utilize genomics data in their studies,” Kazemian said. “Large genomic public data on many diseases generated over the last decade are a treasure trove of unexplored information. Walther Foundation’s funds endowment will enable analysis of big data generated by our center’s members and collaborators as well as an exploration of growing public genomics data to contextualize and translate our findings.”
Less-costly access to bioinformatics expertise and resources enabled by Walther Foundation will open up new avenues for many of the Purdue center’s scientists to broaden the impact and clinical translation of their discoveries, Kazemian said. “It will also encourage our scientists to perform large-scale genomics assays and will foster new collaborations.”
Harikrishna Nakshatri, Ph.D., the Marian J. Morrison Professor of Breast Cancer Research at IU School of Medicine, said he relies on bioinformaticians to design experiments, analyze data and assist him in publishing research results more quickly. The Walther Foundation gift supports that very expensive process, and the collaboration means researchers have more bioinformaticians available when they are needed. All of it combines, Nakshatri said, to enable scientists to reach conclusions that have real benefits for patients.
“If you really believe in your hypothesis,” Nakshatri said, “now you have a chance to test it because you are not burdened by the financial aspects.”
According to Hess, the new resources will allow IU’s partnership with Purdue to continue to improve the health of Hoosiers. “We have worked closely for decades,” Hess said. “This new collaboration in data sciences will accelerate our ability to benefit cancer patients across the state and far beyond.”
About the Walther Cancer Foundation
The Indianapolis-based Walther Cancer Foundation is a private grant-making foundation that supports and promotes interdisciplinary and inter-institutional cancer research, both bench and clinical. The clinical research it supports encompasses clinical trials as well as behavioral studies, the latter as part of the foundation’s commitment to Supportive Oncology. The Walther Foundation has two primary goals: to support cancer research with the aim of discovering better treatments, if not cures, and to develop a comprehensive approach for supporting patients with cancer and their families. Since its founding, the foundation has invested over $165 million cancer-focused research.
About the Purdue Center for Cancer Research
Since 1978, the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research has been a National Cancer Institute-designated basic-research cancer center. Only seven institutions in the United States have earned this title. Being a basic-research center means it does not treat cancer patients directly. Its work focuses on investigating cancers where they begin — at the cellular level — to investigate the cause of, and cure for, one of the most devastating killers of our time. Doctors and scientists throughout the world use the center’s discoveries to develop methods, medicines and medical devices to save and enhance patient lives.
About the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center
The Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is home to the cure of testicular cancer, the world’s only healthy breast tissue bank and is just one of 51 NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation. The prestigious comprehensive designation recognizes the center’s excellence in basic, clinical, and population research, outstanding educational activities, and effective community outreach program across the state. Its physician-scientists have made protocol-defining discoveries that have changed the way doctors treat numerous forms of cancer.
Image courtesy of Purdue University