Two internationally prominent cancer experts from USC and Cedars-Sinai will train a new generation of investigators to propel scientific advances in cancer through a novel grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Peter Kuhn, director of the Convergent Science Institute in Cancer at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, and Dan Theodorescu, director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer, were awarded the inaugural Virtual Cancer Center Director Award in April to establish the Convergent Science Virtual Cancer Center. It is the only such award granted in the United States.

Theodorescu will serve as director of the new center; Kuhn, who is a member of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, will hold the post of deputy director.

Experts at the virtual cancer center will guide emerging scholars from diverse science backgrounds and institutions to accelerate their research and careers. Each investigator will separately receive funding to carry out their specific research, while the center’s $1.25 million total annual award will cover planning, training and administrative expenses.

The award for the new center serves an urgent need. Despite medical advances, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, about 23 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer and 600,000 die of the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Convergent science integrates the knowledge, methodology and expertise from an array of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, physics, technology and engineering to form novel frameworks to spark scientific discovery and innovation. Convergent research is similar to an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving, said Kuhn, a Dean’s Professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. A founding member of the USC Michelson Center, Kuhn is also a professor of medicine, biomedical engineering and aerospace and mechanical engineering at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“Our vision is to transform the fundamental cancer research culture, with a focus on training the next-generation investigator and to maximize their impact on patient outcomes,” Kuhn said.

Theodorescu is an international leader in bladder cancer biology and therapy, a professor of surgery and pathology and laboratory medicine at Cedars-Sinai and a member of the National Academy of Medicine.

“This grant is significant for several reasons — most importantly, its focus on young investigators,” said Theodorescu, PHASE ONE Foundation Distinguished Chair in Oncology at Cedars-Sinai. “Junior researchers are often funded but fail because they lack connections to collaborators in and out of their fields. This grant will help maximize their success by broadening these connections in strategic and synergistic ways.”


Cancer experts from USC, Cedars-Sinai to guide scholars and their research

In collaboration with members of an advisory board, the virtual cancer center leaders will identify investigators’ scientific and career development roadblocks and then help build a team of national experts to guide their research. The advisory board will include the investigators’ career guides, patient advocates and a special advisor on military health.

For its inaugural grant, the Department of Defense has selected eight scholars nationwide to join the virtual cancer center. Kuhn and Theodorescu have expertise in using convergent science for cancer research and broad experience operating large-scale research enterprises.

The two scientists will use a system they developed called Adaptive Catalysis of Convergent Research Training, or ACERT, to design a personalized research and professional development roadmap for each researcher. The training process also will include workshops on broad opportunities in convergent science and specific training on narrower topics.

The virtual cancer center’s scholars also will have access to the Convergence Council, a group of established investigators from multiple disciplines who will use their extensive professional networks to facilitate new connections and collaborations.

The council members include a Nobel Prize winner; members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine; plus biotechnology executives and leaders who have agreed to participate in workshops, networking events and other roles. Pilot grants funded by Cedars-Sinai Cancer will be available to encourage the scholars to form new collaborations with each other or with those affiliated with the virtual cancer center.

The center is scheduled to launch in September.

“Dr. Kuhn and I are excited about the ACERT training approach,” Theodorescu said. “If we are successful, we can use this platform on a much grander scale for young researchers studying other diseases beyond cancer.”

— Gary Polakovic