Edison Liu, president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory and director of the lab’s Cancer Center, consults on research projects in his lab. His research explores the functional genomics of breast cancer. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAX

Lab receives cancer center grant

BAR HARBOR —The National Cancer Institute has renewed its designation of The Jackson Laboratory Cancer Center, the lab announced last week. 

The 5-year designation includes a $10.9-million grant to recruit new faculty members, to support young faculty members and to fund the lab’s infrastructure to support cancer research. 

The designation “enables and empowers institutions to support the cooperationand collaboration amongst their scientists and clinicians toward the treatment, cure, control and prevention of cancer,” said Edison Liu, president and CEO of the lab and director of the Cancer Center. He’s also a cancer researcher himself; his own research explores the functional genomics of breast cancer. 

The lab’s Cancer Center awards grants out of the large federal grant that comes with the National Cancer Institute designation, often for pilot projects, new collaborations or “the first glimmer of an idea” that needs more development before it’s ready for more significant grant funding. 

The designation gives the local organization “access to capital so we can apply it to the most interesting problems that we have right now,” Liu said. “We encourage people to talk to each other and fund them to do the first pilot interactions they have.” 

The Jackson Laboratory is one of 71 suchorganizations in the country recognized for being at the forefront ofcancer research effortsand the only one headquartered in Maine. 

To illustrate the importance of these research collaborations, Liu draws parallels with some other disciplines. 

In nuclear physics, for example, “you have these great names: Bohr, the Curies, Fermi,” he said. “Each one of them had their own laboratories. But none of them could create a nuclear submarine. 

“It took the composite of scientific knowledge, from naval medicine to structural engineers to nuclear physicists to materials scientists. It took a village of scientists and engineers to build that submarine.” 

Developing new diagnostics and treatments for human cancers is a collective undertaking in a similar way, he said. 

“The core truth of a cancer center is like nuclear fission. You have to have criticality, have to bring the uranium rods close together to generate the chain reaction. This is what the cancer center isall about: to bring all these brilliant souls together so we have unique solutions to a really difficult problem.” 

Most NCI Cancer Centers are teaching hospitals, with research activities running alongside patient care. The Jackson Laboratory is one of only seven basic research centers in the group, focusing on advancing precision oncology through basic research discoveries. 

Back to the nuclear submarine analogy, Liusays one could think of oncologists who take care of patients as the on-board engineers who are there to fix the nuclear chamber when it’s not working well. 

“You would never call the submarine engineers mere mechanics,” he said. There’s also always a flow of information between clinical practice and biomedical research. 

But at The Jackson Laboratory, the focus is a little further in the future. Rather than being the ones working to fix the submarine (or patient) in real time, Liu and his colleagues are more like the design engineers working on developing the next class of attack submarines. 

The lab’s Cancer Center was the first mammalian genetics research laboratory to receive National Cancer Institute designation in 1983. Today, the center  than 50 members in the lab’s facilities in Bar Harbor and Farmington, Conn. 

The researchers focus on understanding and targeting the genomic complexity of cancer,modeling human cancers in mice with the goal of developing innovations in genomic and computational analytics of human cancers. 

In addition to Liu’s lab, the Cancer Center’s researchers include Karolina Palucka, deputy director, who conducts research to understand how vaccines work and to define precisely the immune mechanisms that underlie vaccination, with a focus on cancer immunotherapies. 

Jennifer Trowbridge, co-program leader,researches regulation of stem cells in the blood in normal development, aging and leukemia transformation. Roel Verhaak, co-program leader, researches brain tumors, sequencing and computational biology. Susan Airhart, the Cancer Center’s associate director, oversees research administration. 


Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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