I’m pleased to announce that we have surpassed our longstanding goal of obtaining 10 valid chordoma cell lines for use by the research community. Having these cell lines eliminates one of the primary barriers that has held back chordoma research and treatment development for years, and opens the door to countless new research possibilities.
Cell lines are critical for a wide variety of experiments needed to understand how cancer works and identify ways to treat it. A cell line is a continually-dividing family of cells derived from a tumor and grown in perpetuity in Petri dishes (the word “line” refers to multiple generations of progeny, as in the term “bloodline”). Each cell line is derived from cells in a single individual’s tumor. By performing experiments in multiple cell lines derived from different patients’ tumors, researchers can draw conclusions that are generalizable to larger groups of patients.
When the Chordoma Foundation started, there was only one valid chordoma cell line for researchers to work with. Several other cell lines that were labeled as chordoma turned out not to be. I discovered this the hard way while attempting to use these misidentified lines in experiments when I was studying chordoma in a research lab at Duke University (along with colleagues at the University of Ulm in Germany we later published a paper proving that four alleged chordoma cell lines were invalid, thus putting an end to their use).
Having only one valid cell line to work with was a major impediment to research. It meant that experiments could not be replicated. Conclusions could not be drawn from data that was generated. Results were not significant enough to get published. Researchers had no hope of getting funding to study chordoma.
Thus, one of the Foundation’s first and most important goals was to overcome this barrier by developing a collection of validated chordoma cell lines that would be easily accessible to the chordoma research community. We set an ambitious goal of acquiring 10 cell lines—a tall order considering only one lab had ever succeeded in creating a valid chordoma cell line. The cell lines in this collection would be representative of the many clinical manifestations of the disease (e.g. primary and recurrent; skull base, spinal and sacral tumors) so that results would be relevant to the entire chordoma patient population.
At first, the Foundation funded several labs to develop new cell lines, but none of the attempts were successful. In 2010, we tried a different approach to get more researchers to try their hand at developing chordoma cell lines. Inspired by the X Prize and Prize for Life—an organization that uses prizes to advance ALS research—we began offering a $10,000 prize to any researcher who created a bona fide chordoma cell line. The cell lines have to meet rigorous validation criteria and the creators must make the lines freely available to the research community through the Foundation’s Cell Line Repository.
In 2011, the Foundation awarded the first prize to a research group at the University of Ulm in Germany that had also developed the first valid chordoma cell line. The next year, a team at the Medical University of Graz in Austria succeeded. Then researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan followed suit. And, in 2015 we validated a record six new cell lines, bringing the total to 12, and surpassing our original goal of 10 validated cell lines.
But we’re not stopping here. At the recommendation of our Scientific Advisory Board, we have decided to continue offering additional prizes to help increase the diversity of available chordoma cell lines and ensure that every patient subgroup is adequately represented. In particular, we need to acquire additional cell lines derived from skull base and mobile spine tumors, as well as pediatric chordomas, all of which are currently underrepresented in or absent from the collection. We are already in the process of validating several additional cell lines and we aim to acquire a total of six new lines in 2016.
We are also eager to share what we’ve learned from running the cell line prizes with others facing a similar challenge. To that end, we are advising the Rare Cancer Research Foundation, which has recently begun offering cell line prizes on behalf of several rare cancers. Additionally, in November, I moderated a panel discussion about the use of prizes to spur medical innovation at the Partnering for Cures annual meeting in New York (watch video).