UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

April 2018

This month I am celebrating the start of the 2018 baseball season and Hillman’s R01 grants—large grants that are awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to individual investigators for their most timely and innovative research projects. Typically providing direct funding support (exclusive of institutional overhead) in excess of $125,000 (and sometimes even more than $500,000) per year, for up to five years, these grants are the ‘gold standard’ for differentiating early junior investigators, who rely solely or partly on institutional funding, from those who are or are on their way to being fully independent cancer researchers. R01 awards are very competitive, in that only applications that score within the top 10 percent during peer review are currently assured of funding by the National Cancer Institute (see chart). As you can therefore imagine, award of an R01 grant is akin to scoring a home run.

Recent Funding Success Rates for all R01 Applications at the National Cancer Institute. (Reprinted from Awards of R01 and R21 Grants in FY 2016)

To score within the fundable range, R01 grant applications need to outline an extremely logical course of original experimental studies. The investigator needs to demonstrate that the proposed studies build on convincing preliminary data, which have already been obtained, and that the results of the studies being proposed will significantly advance a specific field of cancer research.

Although many Hillman investigators currently have active R01 funding awards, we are particularly pleased when an investigator receives their very first R01. To help the junior investigators who are competing against the most seasoned cancer researchers in the nation, the NIH provides extra consideration (though only a little) for the applications received from individuals who were recently appointed to their first academic faculty position and/or never received an R01 funding award before. In these instances, applications scoring in the top 11 to 12 percent also tend to be funded by the National Cancer Institute. Hillman investigators who are currently conducting research on their first NIH R01 grant award include Drs. Susan W. Wesmiller (awarded January 2018), Roderick O’Sullivan (awarded July 2016), Yael Schenker (awarded June 2016), Li Lan (awarded June 2016), and Kara Bernstein (awarded January 2015).

We are most fortunate this month to welcome a truly exceptional new recruit—Dr. Shou-Jiang (S.J.) Gao—to our faculty. One of the world’s foremost experts on how the Kaposi Sarcoma-associated Herpesvirus (KSHV) causes cancer, Dr. Gao will be leading our world-renown program in cancer virology, as Dr. Patrick Moore steps down to devote more time to his own research activities. As a testament to Dr. Gao’s enormous scientific creativity and productivity, he is currently funded by the NCI as the Principal Investigator of five different R01 grants. In the halls of Hillman Cancer Center, that puts him on par with Babe Ruth as a home run king.

To end this month’s message on an even more positive note, several Hillman investigators have recently communicated that they received extremely good scores on their most recent R01 applications, and that they expect to fall within the funding “payline,” for their topic area. I look forward to telling you about more of these research projects in the months to come and to watching the Pittsburgh Pirates have a winning season.


Robert L. Ferris, MD, PhD