A group of researchers and clinicians from across the Dakotas are coming together to address high cancer rates in the region after UND's medical school received one of the largest biomedical research grants in the history of North Dakota.
UND was recently awarded a five-year, $20.3 million Clinical and Translational Research grant from the National Institutes of Health to work with researchers and medical providers in the Dakotas.
UND, along with NDSU, the University of South Dakota, Sanford Health and other hospital systems throughout the region, will work together to better understand cancer and its causes, and to develop effective treatments for the disease.
The UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences will be leading the charge, along with Dr. Marc Basson, senior associate dean of Medicine and Research of the UND medical school. The grant is the single-largest biomedical research grant in the state's history, Basson said.
The group, known as the Dakota Cancer Collaborative on Translational Activity (DACCOTA), will use clinical research methods to study the link between cancer and the environment and will attempt to develop unique ways to combat cancer in the Dakotas.
Cancer is the leading cause of death for people ages 35 to 64 in North and South Dakota. The rates are even higher among Native Americans, relative to the rest of the population.
DACCOTA will attempt to develop a cure for cancer, but the project is much more than research and treatment for patients, Basson said. The group plans to pair doctors from hospitals like Sanford and Altru with researchers at the universities to develop innovative ways to treat the disease.
"This is a team effort," Basson said. "We could never do this ourselves. We certainly can't do it as well ourselves and we believe that the sum is greater than its parts."
The grant will allow Sanford to dedicate more time for physicians to explore different types of clinical trials and treatment options for patients, said David Pearce, president of research and innovation at Sanford in Fargo.
DACCOTA is more about a cultural change for the researchers and medical professionals across the region, Basson said. The National Institutes of Health often talks about issues with the "bench to bedside chasm," he said.
The "bench" refers to the research and science being studied in laboratories at universities and research centers across the country, while the "bedside" refers to the doctors administering treatments.
"We have a lot of really well-funded investigators doing very good science, but the first problem is how you get from that science to actually putting things into patients and curing disease," he said.
Often times, the "good science" done by researchers gets lost in the "chasm" and never actually makes it to the "bedside" for patients, Basson said.
DACCOTA hopes to bridge those gaps by bringing clinicians and nonclinicians together to develop a deeper understanding with one another.
The grant is specifically built around team science, Basson said. As a part of the grant, the UND medical school will be able to give out grants themselves for projects, but those grants will be for teams of people, rather than single individuals.
"We're not giving money to 'I's', we're giving money to 'we's'," he said.
The medical school already has made steps in the cultural shift. It offers a class that requires graduate students to spend 16 hours a semester job shadowing doctors at Altru. The job shadowing allows students to see the patients they are trying to cure, as well as learning from doctors.
Basson said it has been a very popular course.
"It's very easy to live in your lab and, yeah, you read about the disease in a textbook, but that's not the same as seeing somebody with it," he said. "It's that type of pairing that we're trying to build on here with this project. We're trying to build these teams that will live on long after this agreement goes away."
Culture shift takes time, which is a benefit of having a five-year grant, Basson said.
Research is becoming much more real and innovative as researchers and clinicians begin to collaborate more, Pearce said.
"It is a bit of a culture shift," Pearce said. "You're bringing groups together. You typically have some people will be in the hospitals and some will be in the universities, so you're bringing those groups together to really apply all of their expertise to a common cause, which is to beat cancer."