The cancer solution we need: uniting experts from science, engineering and the humanities
Could a virtual cancer center that unites experts throughout the nation in fields as diverse as physics, molecular biology and the humanities be the key to advancing cancer treatments and ultimately a cure?
The USC Dornsife scientist who co-leads the new Convergent Science Virtual Cancer Center (CSVCC), which recently held its first workshop for participating members, is more than a little enthusiastic about its potential. And as a Dean’s Professor of Biological Sciences, and professor of biological sciences, medicine, biomedical engineering, aerospace and mechanical engineering, and urology, Peter Kuhn knows a little something about the power of convergent expertise to solve big challenges.
Kuhn says the CSVCC is enabling the future of science and a national expansion of the Convergent Science Institute in Cancer, which he directs at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience.
With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs’ Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program, he co-founded the CSVCC with Dan Theodorescu, director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer.
“Dan and I have been discussing both convergent science and the future of science in general for a while, and this visionary call for proposals by the Department of Defense was the perfect opportunity to put it all together,” said Kuhn. “We focus on mentoring junior faculty members from institutions across the nation, helping them become the next generation of leaders and ‘convergent science practitioners.’”
The center’s first conference last fall provided an opportunity for center scholars, members of the convergent science council and program officials to meet at USC to share and further develop their ideas for tackling cancer. The initial group of eight scholars spent two days with the council members and the center’s leadership to discuss new collaborative projects, opportunities and challenges in convergent science career development, and bringing additional scholars on board.
Other topics discussed include the use of artificial intelligence to study, diagnose and treat cancer, how best to move discoveries from the lab to the clinic, and the advancement of researchers’ professional development.
Why is Kuhn so confident in the power of convergent science as where diverse experts are working together on wicked problems like cancer? He says that many breakthroughs in science projects stem from chance encounters between scholars with deep and disparate expertise who realize they can work together on a common puzzle, each from their unique angle. The center, however, doesn’t rely on chance; it brings experts together with intention, he says.
“Seeing how after just one year the scholars are already collaborating with one another and confidently talk about each other’s science in the larger context, it’s clear to me that we’re on the right track, that convergent science can be purposeful and by design,” he said.
Kuhn and Theodorescu hope to expand the center, adding more scholars from around the nation — they expect to welcome a new cohort this summer — to spark even more collaborative projects.
“We started this experiment at USC just eight years ago and are now connecting some of the most talented emerging scholars in cancer research from around the country through this DOD-supported effort,” said Kuhn, “but there’s the potential for us to do so much more.”