As a scientist, I am often asked whether it is more effective to collaborate or compete. I always answer this question with one word: yes.
You see, competition is the fuel that makes humans behave optimally. If we’re just out for a jog by ourselves, when we start to breathe heavily, our tendency may be to back off. But if you throw in a bunch of other runners — let’s call it a race now — we’re much more prone to keep pushing the pace in spite of the discomfort.
Science works the same way. Except instead of a ribbon or a plaque, the prizes for new insights in research are publications in prestigious journals and grants to support our work.
Still, scientists are not lone runners. Research breakthroughs require a team of individuals with a host of different skills. That means partners. And at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, we’ve found a great one just a few blocks to the south.
The University of Oklahoma’s Stephenson Cancer Center was born of the desire to create a comprehensive center for cancer care and research in Oklahoma. Spurred by a directive from the Oklahoma Legislature, Stephenson is working toward earning a “Comprehensive Cancer Center” designation from the National Cancer Institute. Right now, Oklahoma is one of only 16 states that lack an NCI-designated cancer center.
Because Oklahoma is a (relatively) small state with (relatively) scarce human resources, Stephenson realized that the best way to achieve this goal was to use every available asset, not just those within OU. To make this happen, Stephenson reached out to OMRF.
Over a 30-year period, OMRF had built a strong program in cancer research. Our work had focused on how the immune system developed normally and how errors in this process could lead to cancer. While these studies had provided valuable insights for understanding and treating cancer, they had little overlap with the strengths of the Stephenson Center, which had built a national-caliber program of clinical trials in women’s cancers.
With the support of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, Stephenson Director Dr. Robert Mannel committed to provide funds to help recruit four new cancer researchers to OMRF. These new researchers would have a “translational” focus to their work, meaning that their work would be directed at results that would directly lead to improvements in patient care. The longer-term goal would be to find ways to integrate their laboratory studies with clinical trials and care being delivered to cancer patients at Stephenson.
This may not sound like a big deal, but the idea that an arm of OU would use funds to help support work at OMRF was a head-turner. After all, why not just use those monies to bring new scientists to OU?
Mannel recognized that OMRF had already built a national reputation in cancer research. With the support of Dr. Dewayne Andrews, the OU Health Science Center’s senior vice president and provost, Mannel chose to build a partnership with OMRF, one that would use OMRF’s established research strength as a magnet to bring talented cancer investigators to the state.
That was early 2013. So how have those plans worked out?
With the support of Stephenson, OMRF recruited Dr. David Jones from the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute to lead our Immunobiology and Cancer Research Program. An influential cancer biologist whose work had led to clinical trials of four different compounds to treat colon cancer patients, Jones immediately took a pair of big steps when he arrived in Oklahoma.
First, he integrated himself into the Stephenson Center, assuming the role of associate director for translational research. This gave him an opportunity to begin mapping out joint research projects with Stephenson researchers and physicians.
Then he recruited a pair of his proteges — Drs. Alana and Bryan Welm — to join him at OMRF. The Welms are a husband-and-wife research team whose work centers on breast cancer, and they are well on their way to becoming superstars in the field.
As soon as they arrived at OMRF last year, the Welms began establishing joint research initiatives with Stephenson. Their work focuses on precision medicine, which uses genetic information to tailor treatments for individual cancer patients.
Later this year, they anticipate beginning a pair of clinical trials at Stephenson. These trials, much like another trial that OMRF initiated at Stephenson in 2013 in brain cancer, will give Oklahoma patients access to new experimental therapies. In the process, joint teams of OMRF researchers and Stephenson physicians will develop a deeper understanding of the disease, which will, we hope, lead to the development of even more new treatment options.
The OMRF-Stephenson partnership is still young. But judging from what we’ve accomplished in only two years — which also includes a major boost in federal research funding — we are making exceptional progress. Which just shows how effective businesses can be when they pool their resources.
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.