Colorectal Cancer Center of Excellence Convergence Program

With generous support from the Schnabl Family and in loving memory of Fred Schnabl

CRC Convergence Program logo

Why colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer remains the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States with over 150,000 new cases in 2022 and a 4% lifetime risk [1]. Physicians and scientists continue to work to reduce colorectal cancer risk through earlier detection, more precise diagnosis, and targeted treatments. These efforts benefit from continual innovations in genomic technologies that have led to remarkable new insights at both the personal genome and single cell levels. While these genomic measurement technologies provide increasingly more data for analysis, the rapid advances present a challenge for even seasoned researchers to properly identify meaningful biological signals from technology-specific noise. Therefore, specialized programs are required to allow both biologists and data scientists gain the expertise needed to empower discovery in data-driven cancer research.

What are we doing?

To address this challenge, we have created a new comprehensive program that will provide ready access to the data, experts, and training in the latest computational methods most relevant to colorectal cancer. This program will contain three components that span the course of each year:

  • A CollaborationFest (CoFest! for short) that provide hands-on experience with real world colorectal cancer datasets from state-of-the-art genomics technologies
    • The group will work with genomics data, including new single-cell technologies for characterization of the tumor microenvironment. These tools will enable the program team to work towards the following grand challenges:

      • Develop new biomarkers of colorectal cancer patient survival using multi-omics data science methods on reference cohorts in The Cancer Genome Atlas
      • Predicting new targets for therapeutic intervention by determining features of immunosuppression in single-cell datasets to expand immunotherapeutic treatment strategies
  • Practical Genomics workshop to prepare for the CoFest! by providing didactic training in data analysis for new technologies, and
  • The Schnabl Distinguished Lectureship in CRC brings together data scientists and technology developers with a distinguished lectureship dedicated to colorectal cancer. 

Providing these three components in a coordinated way allows us to harness the tremendous advances in genomics and data science by empowering the next generation of researchers to better understand colorectal cancer and ultimately discover new biomarkers and therapies to improve patient care. This program enables trainees to independently participate in multidisciplinary research, providing them with training vital to their careers and the advancement of cancer research that is not typically available to biomedical researchers or data scientists.


CoFest! Program Launch

The SKCCC Convergence CRC Team, the Colorectal Cancer Center of Excellence campaign team, with Marco Schnabl joining remotely, met and CoFest! participants to kick off the event.

The Convergence Institute has launched a new program advancing colorectal cancer data science research in partnership with the Colorectal Cancer Research Center of Excellence (CRC COE). Enabled by a generous donation from the Schnabl Family, this program will provide teams of researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds with the opportunity to analyze real-world data to advance colorectal cancer treatment.

Marco Schnabl has been a member of the CRC COE’s fundraising campaign team since 2019.  After his father passed away from colorectal cancer, he was inspired to make a philanthropic gift that established the Schnabl Family Fund in 2021 to support colorectal cancer research at Johns Hopkins.  These commitments have provided SKCCC clinicians with the ability to further translational research to improve the length and quality of life for colorectal cancer patients. Continuing their generous contributions to cancer research, the Schanbl family wants to contribute and support a project directly to make a greater impact on colorectal cancer research. Mr. Schnabl conferred with Dr. Nilofer Azad and Dr. Elana Fertig, who understood his desire to make a tangible contribution to cancer research. Through this effort, the CRC Convergence Program was born.

In her leadership roles as Associate Director of Quantitative Sciences for  the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer at Johns Hopkins and co-Director of the Convergence Institute, Dr. Fertig had the idea to build up transdisciplinary team science from the earliest stages of the Convergence Institute’s founding. Quantitative Sciences has a long history building and training the next generation of transdisciplinary scientists. Drs. Sarah Wheelan and Luigi Marchionni have moved on from Johns Hopkins, but were integral faculty founding the Division’s educational initiatives, namely the Practical Genomics Workshop that teaches hands on sequencing data analysis for biologists and clinical investigators without any prior computational experience. The program has been running for twelve years now under the leadership of Dr. Frederick Tan of the Carnegie Institution and has become a feeder course for the CRC Convergence Program. Bringing together a small team of scientists to work through a translational cancer research problem has long been a vision of Dr. Wheelan’s training programs that is now being realized. With the help of Dr. Nilo Azad, who has built a strong relationship with the Schnabl family, Dr. Fertig created a team of senior researchers who will oversee a weeklong CoFest! (similar to hackathons with a strong emphasis on building collaborations ). Drs. Harihan Easwaran, Yuba Bhandari, Frederick Tan from Carnegie Institute, and Allissa Dillman from BioData Sage, will bring together early career clinicians, biologists, mathematicians, and data scientists to answer key questions related to colorectal cancer. In the inaugural year, participants will work with Dr. Easwaran’s lab to establish approaches aimed at creating a personalized assessment of the risk of developing colon cancer. The CoFest!  will analyze various types of molecular data from colon cancer and its precursors, called polyps, to address these goals. When asked what excites Dr. Fertig the most about this program, she said, “It is the chance to get a SKCCC dataset with a clinical problem introduced to a broad audience of researchers who can then look at the problem in new ways in order to solve it. The hands-on project in this program provides a truly unique training opportunity in team science that will empower the next generation of scientists to tackle transdisciplinary, grand-challenge cancer research challenges.”

The leadership team is eager to kick-off the event on January 9th with members of the CRC COE campaign team in attendance. Researchers are often secluded from the funders who enable their work. Dr. Tan noted that “it is truly inspiring to hear testimony from patient advocates like Mr. Schnabl.” For others, hearing from patients and their families is a reminder of how their research can make a real impact on patients’ lives.

Program participants will work together in a weeklong CoFest!, meet monthly to continue discussing and interpreting their work, and finally present their findings at the annual Convergence Symposium in May of this year.