Grassroots philanthropies provide seed funding for young investigators

R01. One letter and two numbers, often considered the holy grail of grant funding. It is the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) original grant mechanism, typically offering $1 million or more over five years, with the possibility of competitive renewal for years afterward.

But it can take years of research and reams of data to achieve one, and that time is getting even longer.

According to the NIH, in 1980 the average age investigators receive their first R01 has risen from younger than 38 in 1980 to older than 42 today. Close to 18 percent of all primary investigators were age 36 and under in 1980. Today, that number has fallen to about 3 percent.

“We have made deliberate efforts with special philanthropic funds to fill this gap. It’s about ensuring the future of cancer research by supporting the best and brightest,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“We risk losing a whole generation of researchers because to be where I’m sitting and looking at how hard it is to get funding moving forward, a lot of people are just giving up,” added Patrick Grohar, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology.

One important source of support for young investigators today is small philanthropic organizations, the grassroots groups who take up a cause and raise money, often in honor of a loved one impacted by cancer. Though their gifts may not equal the government’s spending power, they can give a researcher the jumpstart they need to earn future NIH grants or the flexibility to test an unusual idea that just might work.

“The smaller foundations are great for pilot projects to study new directions and gather the basic data,” said Justin Balko, Pharm.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine. “They can also give more freedom, which moves science much faster. Instead of having to write a new grant or get new approval, we can switch gears on a dime because we think we’ve found something really exciting.”

Meet one young investigator from the Vanderbilt Institute of Imaging Science (VUIIS) and the many philanthropic organizations that support him.


Associate Professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences
Focus:  Pancreatic  cancer

Discovery: Through routine CT scans, many patients are diagnosed with indeterminate cystic lesions on their pancreas, and there is no way to know if they are malignant or benign. It’s a difficult decision whether to wait and watch a vicious cancer grow, or to have surgery, which is routinely the extremely difficult and invasive Whipple procedure. Manning is developing a positron emission tomography (PET) imaging test that could help decide a patient’s best course. It capitalizes on the translocator protein that Manning discovered was elevated in high-risk pre-malignant lesions and in pancreatic cancer.

Impact: Pancreatic cancer has a very poor prognosis, often because it is discovered so late. Manning hopes the imaging test could help patients who need surgery get it sooner and avoid it in patients who don’t. This offers not only better quality of life for patients but also reduced health care cost.

Support: Linda’s Hope was founded in Nashville in 2009 after the loss of Meredith Crowley’s mother, Linda, to pancreatic cancer. Its network of young professionals support Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, including a discovery grant for Manning’s research.

“We think young investigators can be more daring. They may have the crazy ideas that could really work, and we want someone on fire about research,” Crowley said.

“Pancreatic cancer is the most underfunded and most deadly cancer. There are really terrifying statistics, and many people look at it as a death sentence. We want to provide hope. There is not much awareness because there are not survivors to talk about it. It’s up to loved ones to spread the word and raise money.”

H. Charles Manning, Ph.D., associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, said it is often selling foundations short to say that they only fill funding gaps. “Really, they let us tackle high-risk, high-reward ideas that may be too risky for government funding but could really pay off.”

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