NIH recently awarded 81 grants totaling $155 million to investigators seeking to conduct innovative, novel experiments, several of which are related to cancer.

The NIH has chosen the latest round of winning applicants for its Common Fund for High-Risk High-Rewards program. A total of 81 projects, several of which are related to cancer, will split the $155-million pie, with awards ranging from $300,000 to as much as $1 million annually for 5 years.

NIH ordinarily doles out research funds through peer-review channels, meaning that it looks for published evidence that a proposal will have a good shot at success. However, sometimes all a scientist has is a great idea and a Catch-22: No funding, so no data, and no data, so no funding.

Launched in 2004, the High-Risk High-Rewards program sidesteps that problem by making it possible for scientists to work on novel and potentially groundbreaking concepts. “Our reviewers are asked to focus on significance, innovation, the breadth of potential impact, and investigator qualifications more than on the details of the approach,” says the program's director, Ravi Basavappa, PhD.

For at least one grant recipient, Kai Wucherpfennig, MD, PhD, an immunologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, MA, the award came as a huge relief. “Funding is so tight right now that it's hard to do highly innovative research,” he says.

Wucherpfennig shares the award—approximately $500,000 a year—with his collaborator Stephen Gottschalk, MD, from Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, TX. The two scientists are trying to find new cancer drug targets in live animals, instead of in cell cultures or other in vitro systems. The challenge, Wucherpfennig explains, is that in vitro systems can't replicate the cell-to-cell interactions of living tissues. “That's why we're trying to do target discovery in an in vivo setting and in the relevant tumor microenvironment,” he says.

According to Wucherpfennig, success in these investigations would mark a decisive advantage for cancer research, because it would allow scientists to compare potential targets in all their natural complexity. The upside could be more efficient drug discovery and a faster path to new cancer treatments.

There's a lot of risk to these newly funded projects in that many of them might not pan out, cautions Basavappa, “but the ones that do make it can have a really positive influence on the broader scientific community.”