We recently announced a Challenge seeking cell lines for Chordoma, a very rare type of bone cancer. We asked Josh Sommer, Founder and Executive Director of the Chordoma Foundation, to talk to us a bit about his Challenge and tell us why it’s so important that a solution is found.
Hi Josh, thanks for being with us today and talking to our Solvers about your Challenge.
Absolutely - thanks for having me.
Your Challenge is seeking cell lines for Chordoma. Can you tell us a bit about this disease?
Chordoma is a slow-growing, but relentless, form of bone cancer that occurs in the skull and spine in people of all ages. Because of their proximity to the brain and spinal cord, chordomas often cause serious neurologic impairment, and are quite complicated to treat. About thirty percent of chordoma patients are cured with surgery and radiation, but for those who aren’t, few treatment options are available, as chemotherapy is usually ineffective. As a result, the majority of patients will succumb to their disease within 7 years. Recently, a number of promising therapeutic targets have been identified which could offer hope to chordoma patients in desperate need of effective treatment options. Cell lines are crucial to evaluating these therapeutic targets and for testing and developing new treatments. Unfortunately, scarcity of valid chordoma cell lines has hamstrung the efforts of dozens of would-be chordoma researchers, and is severely hampering treatment development efforts.
Why have Chordoma cell lines been so difficult to find in the past?
A handful of putative chordoma cell lines have been reported in the literature, however only one of these cell lines (called U-CH1) has molecular and genetic features typical of chordomas. This cell line was created by a lab in Germany in 2001 and remained scarcely used until 2007, when the Chordoma Foundation gained the rights to distribute this cell line – since then we’ve provided it to 26 labs across the world. To validate and generalize their findings, researchers need to study multiple different cell lines, se we are continually searching for additional cell lines which we can distribute. In the past three years at least a dozen researchers have begun trying to create new chordoma cell lines, but so far most have found chordoma cells difficult to grow in culture – they divide slowly and tend to lose chordoma-like properties over time. While several potential cell lines are in the pipeline, new approaches and more trial and error are needed to reach our goal of 10 cell lines.
You are offering multiple prizes, and the Challenge will be posted for 5 months – both of which are a bit unique for an InnoCentive Challenge. Can you tell us a bit about what winning Solvers will receive and why the Challenge has such a long posting period?
We aim to develop, and make available, a panel of 10 well-characterized chordoma cell lines. To this end, the Chordoma Foundation will award $10,000 for each validated chordoma cell line included in this panel. Because chordoma cells grow slowly, creating a new chordoma cell line could take a year or more, however we know that several researchers are already attempting to establish chordoma cell lines, and could succeed within the next five months. We hope that this prize will encourage these investigators to continue their efforts and try new creative approaches. We also hope that the prize will spur other investigators to try their hand at creating chordoma cell lines. The Chordoma Foundation will honor this offer even after the Challenge with InnoCentive expires.
Given that there are not many scientists directly working on Chordoma cures, where do you expect the solution to this Challenge to come from?
U-CH1 was created by a pathology lab that was not, and is not, particularly interested in chordoma. They happened to come across a chordoma and, knowing that it was an interesting and unusual tumor, decided to attempt to create a cell line from it. I suspect that the same scenario will play out at other hospitals – perhaps a surgeon, a pathologist or even a Ph.D. candidate or resident will come across a chordoma and be inspired to put it into culture. Creating a cell line from a difficult-to-culture tumor type is really more of an art than a science; anyone with access to fresh tumor sample and a “green thumb” could succeed.
Is it possible that a solution to this Challenge could help other fields of research? Can you expand upon what other types of research might benefit from the work done here?
Chordoma cell lines could be useful for a variety of types of research. For example, several developmental biologists and biomedical engineers studying the intervertebral disc – which is derived from the same embryonic tissue as chordoma – have requested chordoma cell lines from the Chordoma Foundation. In addition, chordoma cell lines are valuable for studying the function of a gene called brachyury, which has been implicated as a key mediator of invasion and metastasis in a number of other tumor types, and is garnering interest as a potential therapeutic target. There is growing evidence suggesting that many chordomas are driven by aberrant activation of brachyury, as this gene is very highly expressed in virtually all chordomas, and duplication of brachyury causes familial chordoma. While several other cancer cell lines have been shown to express brachyury, it is most highly active in U-CH1. Studying chordoma cell lines that express brachyury could, therefore, shed light on the role this gene plays in the development and progression of cancer.
You have a very personal reason for founding the Chordoma Foundation and for launching this Challenge. Can you tell us about that?
I was diagnosed with a skull-base chordoma in 2006. Following my diagnosis I joined the only NIH-funded chordoma research lab in hopes of hastening the development of new treatments for my disease. My work in the lab required using chordoma cell lines, so I set out to obtain all the cell lines that I could find. It was shocking to discover that only one of five cell lines that we received turned out to be chordoma cells. To help overcome this problem, and others, my mother and I started the Chordoma Foundation in 2007. Since then we’ve brought together over 100 researchers from around the world, and with their input have come up with a roadmap for rapidly developing effective treatments for chordoma. Unfortunately, access to cell lines remains a major obstacle for carrying out this roadmap. I am now four years into a diagnosis with an average survival of seven years, so I feel a great sense of urgency to accelerate the pace of research. Finding additional chordoma cell lines is essential to making that happen. My life, and the lives of many people who have become friends, could depend on it.
Thanks Josh, and good luck with your Challenge.