Colorectal Cancer Center of Excellence Convergence Program


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

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.

Marco Schnabl, a CRC Center of Excellence fundraising team member since 2019, was inspired to make a philanthropic gift that established the Schnabl Family Fund in 2021 to support colorectal cancer research at Johns Hopkins after his father passed away from the disease. In 2023, the Schanbl family wanted to further support colorectal cancer research by funding a project directly. 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.

Photo of Elana Fertig
Elana Fertig, Ph.D.
Photo of Nilofer Azad
Nilofer Azad, M.D.

In her leadership roles as Associate Director of Quantitative Sciences for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer 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 of building and training the next generation of transdisciplinary scientists. Drs. Sarah Wheelan and Luigi Marchionni have moved on from Johns Hopkins, but they were integral faculty members who founded the division’s educational initiatives, namely the Practical Genomics Workshop, which teaches hands-on sequencing data analysis for biologists and clinical investigators. The program has run for twelve years and is now under the leadership of Dr. Frederick Tan of the Carnegie Institution.

Photo of Sarah Wheelan
Sarah Wheelan, Ph.D.
luigi marchionni
Luigi Marchionni, Ph.D.

Dr. Fertig, with help from Dr. Azad, 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, 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 worked with data provided by Dr. Easwaran’s lab to establish approaches aimed at creating a personalized assessment of the risk of developing colon cancer. The CoFest! analyzed various types of molecular data from colon cancer and its precursors, called polyps, to address these goals. 

Hari Easwaran, Ph.D.
Yuba Bhandari, Ph.D.

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 kicked off the event on January 9th, beginning the week-long CoFest! 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.” Participants will meet monthly to continue discussing and interpreting their work, and finally present their findings at the annual Convergence Symposium On May 29th, 2024.

Photo of Frederick Tan
Frederick Tan, Ph.D.
Photo of Allissa Dillman
Allissa Dillman, Ph.D.

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 challenge 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 to 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 to 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 each year:


  • A CollaborationFest (CoFest! for short) that provides 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, to characterize 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

This program allows us to harness the tremendous advances in genomics and data science by empowering the next generation of researchers to understand colorectal cancer better and discover new biomarkers and therapies to improve patient care. Additionally, this 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.




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