Photo by Todd McNaught
Ecologists define "mutualism" as an interaction between two species that benefits both.
The same term aptly describes another partnership in biology: one that pairs Fred Hutchinson with New Mexico State University (NMSU), a minority-serving academic institution whose main campus is located in Las Cruces.
The collaboration results from a five-year, $2.5 million planning grant awarded in June by the National Cancer Institute's Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch, a program dedicated to addressing disparities in cancer incidence and mortality in underserved ethnic minorities.
The institute's philosophy - and that of many medical experts - is that an ethnically diverse population of health-care providers and researchers is best poised to meet the medical needs of traditionally underserved groups.
But achievement of this goal has been hampered by the inability to recruit and retain a critical mass of biomedical researchers and physicians from culturally distinct backgrounds.
NCI's creative solution is to provide grants that link research-rich cancer centers with institutions that enroll large minority-student populations. Such partnerships aim to build cancer-research capacity at minority-serving schools and thereby boost the pool of aspiring researchers and doctors who go on to train and work at cancer centers.
At Fred Hutchinson and NMSU, the grant supports initiatives to recruit and train minorities in cancer-research careers as well as five collaborative research projects representing investigators from all four center scientific divisions and various scientific departments at NMSU. To overcome the considerable geographic distance between the two sites, the grant includes funds for travel between Seattle and Las Cruces.
Both institutions stand to gain much from the collaboration, said Dr. Beti Thompson, principal investigator of the grant and a researcher in the Public Health Sciences Division.
"For NMSU, the effort will help to build an infrastructure for biomedical research, which includes enhancing the ability of their faculty to secure research grants from the National Institutes of Health," she said.
The center will benefit from the ability to attract a more diverse scientific staff, said Thompson, whose research focuses on improving health care of the largely Hispanic Yakima Valley.
"Having the presence of different cultures enriches our ability to appreciate that the world around us is diverse and to have a significant health-care impact on the population in our region," she said. "This will help us to build a critical mass of minority researchers."
NMSU is the land-grant institution of New Mexico. Its scientific programs focus on agriculture, other life sciences, engineering and physical sciences. Its main campus at Las Cruces, about 40 miles from the Mexican border, has a student population of about 15,000, including more than 2,500 graduate students. About 40 percent of the enrollees are Hispanic; overall minority enrollment at the university is about 50 percent.
Because NMSU is primarily a teaching university, its faculty have been challenged in their ability increase the capacity of their research programs, said Dr. Jim Strickland, an NMSU associate professor of nutritional toxicology and co-principal investigator of the NCI grant.
Strickland is spending the summer in Dr. Julian Simon's lab in the Clinical Research and Human Biology divisions through the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences Program grant directed by Dr. Barry Stoddard of the Basic Sciences Division (see related story below).
"Our faculty tend to have heavy teaching loads, and we have little infrastructure in place to support our research," Strickland said. "In particular, we have few technicians or postdocs, in large part because we don't have the cash resources to pay for such research staff."
Large research grants from government agencies like NIH would provide much-needed funds, he said, yet many faculty lack the experience required to procure such awards.
"Partnering with an institution like Fred Hutch that has expertise in securing grants from NIH will provide the mentoring that we need," he said.
Such support will increase the research opportunities for NMSU students.
"Right now, the demand for research slots for our students exceeds what we can provide," he said.
A key aim of the grant is to provide multiple avenues for undergraduate and graduate research training. Thompson said these might include traditional research assistantships, in which students from each institution would complete some portion of their training at the partner institution. This summer, Dr. Maxine Linial from the Basic Sciences Division hosted an NMSU student in her laboratory. Other opportunities are likely to include short-term internships and summer workshops.
New pilot projects
An external Program Steering Committee of researchers from around the country, as well as a representative from NCI, will guide and oversee the program's progress. In addition, an internal steering committee made up of scientists from the center and NMSU will meet yearly to propose new pilot projects and evaluate those that are ongoing.
Following the current five-year funding period, the center and NMSU will likely apply for a related NCI grant to further develop the partnership.
Strickland said he hopes that once the program becomes established, NMSU will continue to develop a biomedical-sciences program for undergraduates, perhaps with a track in cancer biology. Another goal is to encourage talented NMSU students to complete doctoral or postdoctoral training at the Fred Hutchinson.
"Our aim is to give students as many opportunities as we can," he said.