Interdisciplinary Research to Be Focus of Case Institute

November 1, 2001

Interdisciplinary Research to Be Focus of Case Institute

BETHESDA, Maryland—Richard D. Klausner, MD, resigned as director of the National Cancer Institute in September to head the Case Institute for Health, Science and Technology. AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case and his wife Jean established the new organization as part of their nonprofit Case Foundation.

The Case Institute will pursue interdisciplinary research involving biological, physical, and information scientists "to accelerate medical and scientific discovery and technology development that can ultimately improve the lives of people throughout the world," Mr. Case said.

The Case Institute will be based in Washington, DC. Dr. Klausner, however, will not completely sever his ties with NCI. He will have a laboratory there as a "special volunteer" to continue research he pursued throughout his tenure as director.

In this interview with ONI Washington bureau chief Patrick Young, Dr. Klausner discusses his departure from NCI and his plans for the Case Institute. In an upcoming issue, Dr. Klausner will talk with Mr. Young about his accomplishments at NCI, the state of cancer research today, and the looming funding issues as the 5-year effort to double the NIH budget nears an end.

Oncology News International: Why did you decide to leave NCI?

Dr. Klausner: It is never clear that there is a perfect time to leave. I expected to do this job for 5 years, and I was in my seventh year. Frankly, I was feeling restless. I felt that I had accomplished much of the agenda that I had come to NCI to accomplish.

I felt I had set in place new directions and a new formulation for the Institute’s processes. I felt the Institute was in good shape with terrific people, and we had changed the culture in many ways to make NCI more open.

And to be honest, my own interests began moving elsewhere. You can’t keep initiating new things, and it was time for our initiatives at NCI to play out.

I have always enjoyed staying with things if am really connected to the intellectual content. And it turns out, it is very difficult to get deep into anything when running a $4 billion agency with thousands of employees. So I felt it was really the right time for me to be open to moving.

ONI: What appealed to you about the presidency of the Case Institute?

Dr. Klausner: What appealed to me was the freedom, the possibility of creating a new entity with nice resources. As Steve Case said to me, "Create an institution of your vision of a space that needs to be occupied within the areas of health, science, and technology." I like—as you saw at NCI—formulating a vision. I like providing support for things. I like challenging people to think of ideas and do things. And the way I envision the Case Institute, it is all of that.

ONI: Was the Case Institute created for you?

Dr. Klausner: Yes.

ONI: What space do you see the Case Institute occupying?

Dr. Klausner: I am very interested in the interface between science and technology as it applies to health, and particularly areas of transforming technologies that cut across various disciplines. I describe the Case Institute as having both intramural activities and extramural activities, and linking them to create communities of scientists and technology researchers that will work together to address large problems.

For the first 3 years, we will focus on life sciences informatics, molecular monitoring, and an interest of the Cases themselves, communication and education information with regard to the digital divide.

ONI: What do you mean by molecular monitors?

Dr. Klausner: Molecular monitors is the rubric I’m giving to the development of new sensing and measurement technologies so that we can turn more and more of what we do—from basic biology, to clinical development, to the practice of medicine, to public health—into more information-rich, interpretable measurements.

ONI: What model will you use for the Case Institute? Will it be something like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute?

Dr. Klausner: It’s really more of a hybrid. There will be intramural research, though probably not wet labs. The wet labs that we support will be people at different institutions and universities. There may be aspects of Howard Hughes. We may support people as scholars at particular institutions. The difference is that we will invite people to come together to work as a more networked community to solve bigger problems, as opposed to supporting an individual’s research agenda.

ONI: Will this be by investigator initiation?

Dr. Klausner: Again, we will come up with a hybrid model. We will both reach out for people and ask for white papers and proposals, and certainly we will have a process whereby we review who is funded.

ONI: How large a budget will you have?

Dr. Klausner: The beginning spending will be about $100 million and that will go up.

ONI: That’s per year?

Dr. Klausner: I’m not sure we can say $100 million in the first year. That’s cash in the bank that we will begin dispersing.

ONI: Why is there a need for an institution like the one you’re going to head?

Dr. Klausner: There is always a need for new institutions, particularly if they are looking to fund things across disciplines, which is what we want to do. We want to bring together the physical sciences, the chemical sciences, the material sciences, and biology, and the information sciences.

It takes new institutions to catalyze some of the new interactions and new networks; new institutions can start from scratch to look at where we are now in science and think afresh about where we are going.

ONI: Will the Case Institute be funding long-term research projects?

Dr. Klausner: Yes, but this is a work in progress. We agreed on this institute over the summer and I’ve remained extremely busy finishing up running NCI. Now I have time to gather people together and brainstorm. So I don’t want to overstate or over specify what we’re going to do.

ONI: The Institute is described as intended to pioneer new ground "where science, technology, and medicine converge." What does that mean in practice?

Dr. Klausner: It’s the development of new tools and new technologies to solve problems in new ways. It’s not dissimilar from many things you’ve heard me talk about at NCI—the biosensors program, for example.

I view this as a very natural evolution for me personally—an opportunity to focus on a very limited number of things that I can be much more personally involved in, but in the areas I’ve tried to push here at NCI.

ONI: Can you give us an example of a "new initiative not specific to any disease"?

Dr. Klausner: What that really means is that we are not giving ourselves a mandate in a particular disease area. We will be working on problems relevant to disease.

ONI: Will you try to meld all of the interests of the institutes and divisions and centers of NIH into a single unified effort?

Dr. Klausner: Remember, the Case Institute is going to be quite small compared with NIH. We want to be bold in what we do but also cognizant of what we can do to catalyze and stimulate things, and we will have to choose our focus.

It is just that the menu of things from which we can choose our focus is the menu that cuts across all of NIH.

ONI: How much time will you spend as a special volunteer scientist at NIH?

Dr. Klausner: Probably 8 to 10 hours a week.

ONI: What projects do you plan to pursue at your NIH lab?

Dr. Klausner: My lab will, for the foreseeable future, completely focus on the VHL tumor suppressor gene, which plays a critical role in kidney cancer and an inherited disorder called von Hippel-Lindau disease. I began that work when I was still at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

ONI: And where are you going to find the time?

Dr. Klausner: Well, I’ve always found the time to do lots of things. I love working. I love science. This is like being a kid in a candy store. I will make time to do all the things I have committed myself to do.