In 1998, the NCI established the groundwork for a highly successful program focused on innovative technology development to meet the specific needs of cancer researchers and clinicians by stimulating the next wave of technologies capable of being applied toward the field of cancer research. Unlike other initiatives of the time, the IMAT Program solicited only the most cutting-edge ideas, thus restricting its application pool to those projects that had the potential to be truly transformative. By doing so, the program filled a void that no other program at the NCI or NIH filled.
Taking risks on early stage potentially transformative technologies, IMAT has contributed to many of the block-buster technologies that are now on the market and in almost ubiquitous use across the cancer research and clinical communities. Successfully developed and commercialized products such as RNALater, Affymetrix gene chips, Illumina bead platforms, Quantum dot labeling, and ICAT technology were all considered high-risk ideas at the time of their inception and initial funding through the IMAT Program. Yet, their current widespread use and applicability to multiple clinical and basic sciences research settings are a testament to the high pay-off and impact that such transformative technologies have provided to the field of cancer research. By soliciting and supporting these otherwise risky technologies from their earliest stages of development, the NCI (through the IMAT Program) has supported not only the development of these new transformative technologies in and of themselves but also supported them in a manner consistent with providing researchers and the R01 community rapid access to such platforms through appropriate commercialization and dissemination. The NCI has thus taken risks to substantiate the ultimate value and utility of such technologies even in cases where venture capital (VC) firms may have been reluctant to do so due to the inherent risks associated with innovative technology development.
Currently, there are new challenges facing cancer researchers and clinicians and, as such, the need for a sustained technology development pipeline encompassing inception and initiation (i.e. the ‘bright idea’ stage) through dissemination and commercialization has never been greater. Challenges represented by the need to rapidly assess all of the epigenetic changes in single cells, directly measuring microenvironment impact on cancer metastasis, collecting rare cells from the blood of patients with recurrent disease require creative thinking and risk-taking to enable research in a manner similar to the way that gene expression profiling is currently enabled. IMAT seeks to fill this void by:
- empowering individual investigators and small commercial entities such as small business concerns to think creatively,
- stimulating technologists and engineers from multiple fields to partner with biologists and clinicians who face similar or common technical challenges, and
- taking the risks needed to overcome or break through the most common and pressing technical barriers that currently impede progress, effective research, and clinical decision making
By accomplishing these goals, the IMAT program seeks to stimulate progress in the field of cancer research at a pace that is revolutionary rather than evolutionary and to ensure the adequate, fair, and equal dissemination of knowledge that stems from such an approach.
In 2006, the NCI Executive Committee commissioned an external evaluation of the IMAT Program in order to assess the program’s progress toward meeting its stated objectives. The Office of Technology and Industrial Relations, in conjunction with the Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimens Research, was pleased to present the results of this external evaluation to members of the NCI Executive Committee in the Spring of 2007. The evaluation provided an assessment of the program’s progress and laid the groundwork for its continued future successes in keeping the forefront of cancer research and practice moving forward.