Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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Ideas Lab Fosters Research on Cancer and Aging

In 2020, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University was one of 12 cancer centers selected to receive a grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to support Interdisciplinary Research on Cancer and Aging. The NCI initiated this request for proposals to address the needs of the growing population of older adult cancer survivors, as well as younger individuals who experience accelerated aging due to cancer and its treatments. The purpose of the grant was to establish a sustainable infrastructure and diverse community of collaborators to advance the science of cancer and aging.

This year, Lurie Cancer Center launched the initiative with an Ideas Lab designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and scientific innovation.

What is an Ideas Lab?

An Ideas Lab, also called a Sandpit, is a process of inventive brainstorming that engages several professional disciplines to solve an important scientific problem in novel ways. Many funding agencies and research institutions organize Ideas Labs to jumpstart innovation in a research area. The Northwestern Lab was facilitated by Knowinnovation, a global leader in scientific innovation events. ­

Ordinarily held as an intensive five-day in-person workshop, the global pandemic required a change in format. Instead, the Lab was organized as a series of two-hour virtual gatherings held over eight weeks. Throughout the Lab, fellows were charged with addressing a challenge and an opportunity:

  • Challenge: Cancer, its treatments, its comorbidities, and health risk factors (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity, smoking) contribute to synergistic biologic challenges that confront the large and growing number of cancer survivors, paving the way toward premature functional capacity declines and the onset of frailty.
  • Opportunity: Given the deep bench of relevant expertise at Northwestern, if there were no technical or logistic obstacles, what could we do together to slow the trajectory of accelerated aging in cancer, thereby reducing dysfunction and health care costs, while improving quality of life?

Selection Process and Launch

Leaders from the Lurie Cancer Center, Northwestern University, and other Chicago-area institutes and centers focused on aging, were asked to nominate junior faculty and postdoctoral fellows with potential to drive research in cancer or aging. 30 applicants were selected to participate, with the group’s composition balanced across basic biological scientists, clinician researchers, behavioral and computer scientists.

Participants were assigned six short videotaped lectures to view during the first two weeks. The lectures were delivered by nationally recognized experts in genetic and metabolic aspects of aging, frailty assessment, exercise effects on aging, ethics, and artificial intelligence, asked to speak as “provocateurs,” to question traditional assumptions and suggest novel, even disruptive, approaches.

Interdisciplinary groups of fellows were placed into “rooms” to discuss the lectures, and then subsequently regrouped as small cohorts in “randomized coffee gatherings.” During these meet-ups, they became acquainted with their peers and began to experience each other’s disciplinary perspectives.

Progression of the Ideas Lab

In addition to the fellows, several experts in education and senior researchers from the participating disciplines were recruited to serve as facilitators and mentors of the Ideas Lab, which was implemented as a series of weekly interactive sessions. Throughout the first four weeks, participants were repeatedly re-randomized into interdisciplinary groups and asked to use their diverse expertise to collectively brainstorm the most interesting scientific questions they could address. At the end of each session, the full cohort reconvened, offered feedback about the divergent ideas, and sought out connections between them. The role of mentors during this initial phase was to cross-pollinate ideas between groups, drawing connections and deepening insights.

During the second half of the Ideas Lab, fellows formed self-selected groups based on the scientific question they found most compelling. Ultimately, three different teams emerged, focusing on patient-reported outcomes, social and environmental determinants, and circadian rhythm disruption. During this phase, mentors continued to rotate across the teams, while modifying their approach. They helped teams to refine ideas, sharpen research designs, anticipate pitfalls, and find institutional resources that could support the research. The teams gave preliminary presentations and received feedback at the end of each session, building toward a final presentation to the Cancer and Aging Steering Committee and Advisory Groups.

Following the final presentations, delivered in March, teams were given two weeks to prepare a final research proposal and budget. Proposals competed for a $50,000 Translational Bridge Award provided by the Lurie Cancer Center. The winning proposal, entitled “Exploring circadian disruption as a putative mechanism of accelerated aging in lymphoma,” was submitted by a highly interdisciplinary team comprised of a psychologist, anthropologist, exercise physiologist, nutritionist, oncologist, geriatrician, and molecular epidemiologist.