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IDEAS Lab designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and scientific innovation in research on aging and cancer

April 5, 2021

In Summer of 2020, Northwestern University’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center was one of 12 Cancer Centers selected by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to receive a grant to support Interdisciplinary Research on Cancer and Aging.  NCI initiated this request for proposals to address needs of the growing population of older adult cancer survivors, as well as younger individuals who experience accelerated aging due to the disease 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.  Northwestern’s award launched with an IDEAS Lab designed to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and scientific innovation in research on aging and cancer.

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 (e.g., NIH, NSF, Department of Defense, Universities) organize IDEAS labs to jump start innovation in a research area.  The Northwestern Lab was facilitated by Knowinnovation, a global leader in scientific innovation events. ­ Although ordinarily held as an intensive 5-day in-person workshop, the global pandemic required a change in format.  Instead, the Lab was organized as a series of 2-hour weekly gatherings held remotely over an 8-week period.  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

Cancer Center leaders and Directors of Northwestern and other Chicago Institutes and Centers focused on aging were asked to nominate junior faculty and postdoctoral fellows with potential to drive research in cancer or aging.  Nominees applied and 30 applicants were selected to participate, with the group’s composition balanced across basic biological scientists, clinician researchers, behavioral scientists, and computer scientists.  For the first two weeks, participants were assigned to view 6 short videotaped lectures – 3 each week.  Nationally known experts in genetic and metabolic aspects of aging, frailty assessment, exercise effects on aging, ethics, and artificial intelligence delivered these talks.  They spoke as “provocateurs,” asked to question traditional assumptions and suggest novel, even disruptive, approaches.  After viewing assigned videos, interdisciplinary groups of fellows were placed into “rooms” and then subsequently regrouped as small cohorts in “randomized coffee gatherings.” During these meet-ups, they became acquainted with their peers and discussed the lectures, beginning to experience each other’s different disciplinary points of view. 

Progression of the IDEAS Lab

In addition to the fellows, several experts in education and several senior researchers from each participating discipline were recruited to serve as facilitators and mentors during the Ideas Lab.

The Ideas Lab was implemented as a series of weekly virtual engagement sessions.  During the first four weeks, participants were repeatedly re-randomized into interdisciplinary groups and asked to brainstorm the most interesting scientific questions they could address, given their collective, diverse expertise. At the end of each session, the full cohort reconvened, offered feedback about the multiple, divergent ideas and sought 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 their own 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.  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 on March 1, 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 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. 

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