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Star War on Cancer?

September 1, 1998

In the latest escalation of the war on cancer, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is arming itself with some high-risk tactics borrowed from the Department of Defense.

In June, NCI launched the Unconventional Innovation Program (UIP), a five-year, $48 million bid to come up with novel technologies that could someday tip the balance in man’s battle with malignancy. The aim, says Carol Dahl, director of NCI’s office of technology and industrial relations, is no less than “quantum improvements and entirely novel approaches” in fighting cancer.

The program is modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), home of some of the most successful federal funding of daring technological endeavors. (DARPA was, for instance, the initial sponsor of the Internet.) “The notion is that the bizarre and the weird sometimes have the greatest impact,” says Franklin Prendergast, director of cancer research at the Mayo Clinic and a member of NCI’s Board of Scientific Advisors. Most of NCI’s $2.5 billion per year in research funding is doled out through a peer-review process that Prendergast says “overlooks technologies that challenge dogma.”

NCI is seeking outside-the-box innovators who can implement such science-fiction concepts as injectable tumor-killing nanorobots or smart polymers that both detect diseases and deliver drugs. The cancer institute will award the first grants in 1999, favoring multidisciplinary projects that cut across fields such as microfabrication, photonics and chemical engineering.

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