PCF’s Young Investigator Program gives recent MDs and PhDs the opportunity to conduct breakthrough research at a critical point in their careers as professional scientists. For these researchers, the first 7 or so years following the conferral of the terminal degree is a precarious and uncertain time. Academic positions are in short supply, and opportunities for research funding for junior scholars are sparse in the current climate of shrinking government funding. In many ways, this period represents a serious bottleneck characterized by heavy “sink or swim” undertones.
PCF views this bottleneck as a unique opportunity to tap vibrant young minds, regardless of their field of study, and channel their talents toward prostate cancer research. Since its inception, the Young Investigator Program has been awarded to 204 early-career researchers and has become a cornerstone to the Foundation’s research model. In 1993, when a career in prostate cancer research was considered a dead-end profession, a talented few were willing to take the risk when PCF provided key funding. Today, we have as vibrant a field as any in life sciences and we have seen an extension of life and better treatments for all prostate cancer survivors.
Young Investigator Awards are instrumental in achieving this goal by helping us build more human capital. These 3-year awards jump-start the research careers of recent PhDs and MDs, and are game-changing investments that attract and retain innovative research talent. As part of the program, grantees are mentored by scientific leaders in the field, and awards are matched dollar for dollar by the researcher’s institution. This emphasis on creative science, mentorship and professional development is what distinguishes PCF from other funding organizations.
Taking Risks To Improve Patient Outcomes
The goal of the Young Investigator Program is to identify exceptional scientists, early in their careers, who will pioneer and transform new biotechnologies into saving the lives of prostate cancer patients. Encouraging creative, out-of-the-box thinking from early-career scientists, who are often encouraged to follow established lines of research, is a defining characteristic of the Young Investigator Program. Joshua Lang, MD (University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center), who is working on how to make tumors more recognizable to the immune system, pinpoints this feature as one of the most unique aspects of the Young Investigator Program. “For large government organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there is a prescribed path for career development,” he says, describing the conservative nature of traditional funding organizations and the challenges that poses for exploring novel ideas as a recent graduate. “PCF is much more nimble than other organizations. It responds rapidly to new ideas, funds faster and has established the Young Investigator Program as the optimal place for taking risks.”
These risks have paid enormous dividends, and discoveries made by Young Investigators are now reaching and improving the lives of prostate cancer patients worldwide. Since 2008, Young Investigator Award recipients have been responsible for newly FDA-approved medicines, pioneering discoveries related to prostate cancer diagnostics, disease progression and the development of treatment resistance. This includes the discovery of a gene fusion associated with prostate cancer, known as TMPRSS2:ERG, and the development of a diagnostic urine-based test with a specificity far greater than current screenings for prostate-specific antigen (PSA).
The opportunity to impact medical history is a major factor that makes the Young Investigator Program so attractive to scientists, and their enthusiasm is evident. Lauren Harshman, MD (Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), is a medical oncologist who is testing a novel combination therapy in a Phase I clinical trial. “The study epitomizes the translation of basic science discoveries to the bedside with a novel drug combination that may attack resistance mechanisms and improve responses and disease control for our patients,” she says. “To take these discoveries to the clinic, validate them and ultimately improve patient outcomes is what excites and drives me,” she adds.
Researchers Credit Success to Mentorship
In the 1990s, leading researchers created a legacy as mentors with hundreds of new, young, top scientists entering the field. Over 2 decades later, mentorship remains a key element of the Young Investigator Program. Outstanding researchers, PCF believes, are borne from exceptional educators and mentors. Many of these researchers credit their success to good mentorship, something that is hard to find once they are no longer in graduate school and are applying for senior research grants.
“NIH and NSF (the National Science Foundation) are massive, and it’s often hard to figure out where to go or who to talk to,” says Dr. Lang. “PCF is a one-stop shop and the leadership guides you in the necessary directions. I consider Dr. Soule and Dr. Simons among my mentors.”
June M. Chan, ScD (University of California, San Francisco), is likewise thankful for the support and guidance she received directly from Drs. Soule and Simons. As an epidemiologist, Dr. Chan’s research focuses on the relationship between lifestyle and survivorship in prostate cancer. After receiving a CaP CURE Award in 1998 (an earlier iteration of the Young Investigator Award), subsequent research on exercise and prostate cancer—while of interest to PCF— did not fit its main funding mechanisms. Nevertheless, she credits members of the Foundation with helping her secure funds for what they felt was important research. “Even when it was something they couldn’t fund, they shopped our ideas around and made matches,” she says. “The major NIH grant I have now, which is focused on exercise, is based on a collaboration with people I was introduced to by PCF.”
In addition to the numerous thought leaders and internationally renowned scientists that researchers count as their advisors, “the greatest mentor is PCF itself,” says Alexander Wyatt, DPhil (Vancouver Prostate Centre), who studies the molecular changes associated with the worst forms of prostate cancer. “They are truly invested in us and our successes.” Dr. Chan agrees. “My project was not directly funded by PCF, but PCF believed in it and championed it.”
PCF Pioneers Comprise Global Research Community
In their award offer letters, newly minted Young Investigators are welcomed to the PCF Research Family. Though she received her award 17 years ago, this is something that has stuck with Dr. Chan throughout her professional career. “I still remember the wording of that letter,” she says. “At the time, I thought that was a funny way to put it, but in reality, it couldn’t have been more accurate. Many of my close colleagues have come from my PCF connections and people I have met through Jonathan [Simons] and Howard [Soule].”
Andrew Goldstein, PhD (University of California, Los Angeles), a stem cell biologist who studies the tumor microenvironment, echoes this sentiment. “In other areas, someone might be lucky to find funding, but they aren’t brought into a community,” he says.
“PCF integrates you into the community of established investigators all over the world. Even if we aren’t formally collaborating, we are always inspiring each other.”
The annual Scientific Retreat, a venerated PCF tradition, offers opportunities for interaction and idea exchange that are difficult to come by and virtually nonexistent at large, discipline-wide conferences. “Because it’s still somewhat small compared to other meetings, you get to see this amazing wealth of new and unpublished data and meet so many other investigators,” says Dr. Harshman, describing her retreat experience. “You hear about their successes, but perhaps more importantly about the false starts and failed trials. Those rarely get published, but they can prevent another investigator from going down the wrong path and wasting important time.”
Dr. Wyatt points out that, for a young scientist, the retreat is a singular opportunity to network and interface with senior researchers: “You see other thought leaders present, and then afterwards have dinner with them and discuss ideas.” The retreat has also enabled him to connect with other young scientists in the field and meet new peers. The net effect of these interactions is a healthy competition, friendship and mutual respect, he says.
It is not only the Scientific Retreat that brings researchers together; many researchers meet monthly, if not more often, in PCF working groups and journal clubs. The vast majority of these meetings are conducted virtually by conference call, coordinated at the Foundation’s Santa Monica, CA, headquarters by Andrea Miyahira, PhD, PCF’s Manager of Scientific Programs.
“The Young Investigator working groups were initiated with the goal of fostering collaboration and community among the next generation of prostate cancer researchers, who we are entrusting with the future of science and medicine,” says Dr. Miyahira. “There is nothing that puts you closer to the heart of research than talking directly to the researcher.”
Dr. Goldstein describes these group calls as one of the most exciting aspects of his relationship with PCF. “None of this dialogue would be happening without PCF,” he says. “Working with people across the country enables us to put things together and build formal collaborations. And informally, the support we receive from each other is very important and inspiring.”
New Breakthroughs for Years to Come
In many ways, the Young Investigator Program is not about simply putting research funds into the hands of early-career scientists. It is about creating a sustainable model for scientific discovery that ensures that new breakthroughs will continue for years to come. By providing the initial funding to a select group of promising researchers, PCF has created a powerful network of some of the most innovative scientists worldwide. Leveraging their PCF awards, these young researchers are able to compete for large senior grants, develop and direct their own research programs and even serve as mentors to future generations of Young Investigators. PCF is especially proud of its Young Investigators who have gone on to become mentors themselves.
Dr. Chan’s career is illustrative of this model. In addition to receiving 15 grants and awards since 1998 (including 2 additional PCF awards), she has mentored more than 25 students, post-docs and faculty—including 2 subsequent PCF Young Investigators—as Professor of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Urology at the UCSF School of Medicine.
Dr. Wyatt is unequivocal in his narration of how the Young Investigator Program helped him transition to the next phase of his professional career. He describes receiving his award in 2012, when he was a post-doctoral researcher working on “one aspect of prostate cancer.” Three short years later, he is impressed at “how PCF funding credentialed me and got me autonomy to do my own projects and the recognition of my peers, even at the international level.”
When asked what advice they would give to aspiring scientists, many echo the principles that PCF imparts to its researchers, such as passion, creativity and mentorship.
Says Dr. Lang, “you have to dream and then connect with mentors who will help you realize those goals.”
“Choose something you are passionate about, but also keep an open mind and don’t turn down new opportunities just because you are unfamiliar with a topic. Be proactive about finding good mentors and soliciting advice,” says Dr. Chan.
“You have to really love what you do to stay in this field,” adds Dr. Harshman, who also encourages her students to take advantage of all training opportunities. “We need it all: basic scientists, epidemiologists, statisticians, trialists, clinicians to care for our patients and think of reverse questions from the bedside to the bench and those rare breeds of translational researchers who can have one foot in both the lab and the clinic.”
They also look forward to what lies ahead. “When you are in that in-between stage, before you’re an established investigator and able to compete for big NIH grants, PCF gives you the opportunity to do research you’re passionate about,” says Dr. Goldstein, who has just completed the 3-year funding period of his award. “For me, the next step is to become an assistant professor and compete for an NIH grant. And it would be a huge honor to one day serve as a mentor to future Young Investigators.”
For many, daily inspiration comes from PCF’s focus on patients, who are the heart of the research. The overarching desire to deliver new treatments to patients is what creates an entirely unique atmosphere for early-career scientists. “PCF truly creates an environment in which researchers can thrive,” says Dr. Lang. “They recognize that it takes novel ideas to rapidly change patient care, and by taking these ‘chances,’ PCF has been a part of every major advance in prostate cancer.”