139th National Cancer Advisory Board
Dr. Barker introduced the presentation on the Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies (IMAT) program. The NCI recognized that technology grants do not fair well in peer review R01 study sections, and the assistance was needed to help investigators develop technologies for both first generation technologies in areas such as mass spectrometry, as well as for multiplexed technologies and very advanced technologies in drug delivery. The IMAT program has filled this gap for technology development, much of which can be commercialized. Dr. Barker introduced Drs. Gregory Downing, Director, Office of Technology and Industrial Relations; Stephen J. Kron, Associate Professor, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, University of Chicago; and Jan E. Schnitzer, Scientific Director, Sydney Kimmel Cancer Center, San Diego.
IMAT Program Overview—Dr. Gregory Downing
Dr. Downing explained that the IMAT’s mission is to develop and apply new technologies that transform researchers’ abilities to identify molecular changes that distinguish pre-cancerous and cancerous cells from normal cells. The program aims to focus innovative technology development on cancer, solicit highly innovative technology development projects from the scientific and medical communities, and accelerate the maturation of meritorious technologies from feasibility to development and/or commercialization. It was established in 1998 to encourage highly innovative cancer technology development projects that: address the complexity of cancer, including myriad molecular and cellular processes, and understand relevant genes and roles of nucleic acids, proteins, and other cellular factors and modifications; provide novel mechanisms, program, and review structures to support innovative cancer-relevant technology from inception, as well as the development of novel applications of those technologies that uniquely enable cancer biology research by R01 investigators; and ensure that resulting technologies are robust and appropriate for intended applications in basic, preclinical, and clinical settings. IMAT is a high-risk, high-impact project that emphasizes technology development and application. It is structured around milestones that address quantitative measures of specificity, sensitivity, speed, and other performance parameters, and that involves a staged process that requires quantitative evidence of progress before advancing to the next stage. Some IMAT funding opportunities are directed at small businesses under SBIR and STTR; since inception, approximately one-quarter of applications and one-third of awards are for small businesses.
Dr. Downing shared a schematic to illustrate the life cycle of an IMAT technology development project based on a grants mechanism. The ideas are presented in what is called Phase I or the R21 phase, which is an exploratory, proof-of-concept element of understanding molecular and genetic aspects in the cancer cell. Performance milestones are used to gauge whether a project is making sufficient progress to enter Phase II funding, also called the R33 component and the Phased Innovation Award (combined R21/R33). Three RFA solicitations are used: Innovations in Cancer Sample Preparations, Innovative Technologies for the Molecular Analysis of Cancer, and Application of Emerging Technologies for Cancer Research. The flow of these programs supports many other aspects of IMAT’s mission; the programs feed into NCI biological and clinical research programs, public-private partnerships, and commercial industry, which all contribute to the discovery and use of technologies, approaches, and knowledge to understand, prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer. The IMAT review process focuses on technology development vs. hypothesis-driven research, reviews milestones and recommends improvements, considers whether technology is an improvement over state-of-the-art, and reviews continuity by using previous IMAT panel members and IMAT grantees.
Dr. Downing briefly described six case studies that illustrate the IMAT program’s influence in the field. (1) Dr. Jonathan Oliner, Affymetrix, presented some aspects that were important in the early stages of developing chip-based technologies. (2) Dr. Gary Latham, Ambion, worked on enzymatic tools such that researchers can store tissue samples without significant loss of RNA integrity. (3) Dr. John R.