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Scientist at Work: Mark Kelley

Day in and day out, cancer fighter Dr. Mark Kelley is trying to find a safe way to knock cancerous tumor cells out of action, while at the same time protecting a patient's normal cells from damage.

His work at Indiana University's Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center studying the use of DNA repair genes as a therapeutic tool in different chemotherapy programs is highly specialized, but he also knows that answers to his problems may lie within the work some other researcher is doing in another corner of the same building.

There are, after all, more than 200 investigators at the hospital conducting research in the areas of experimental and development therapeutics, breast cancer, cancer control, hematopoiesis, microenvironment and immunology. And in addition to treating more than 42,000 patients a year, researchers and physicians also teach some 2,000 students annually at the center.

"People are so busy writing grants, teaching students and doing research, but the number of hours in the day doesn't change," Kelley said from his third floor laboratory at the Cancer Research Institute that sits across the street from the Simon Cancer Center. "If you can develop a way to build collaboration, and do it without reinventing the wheel, then opportunities might arise to accelerate research."

And so springs Kelley's personal commitment to the cancer center's Indiana Translational Research Acceleration Collaboration, or ITRAC, a program designed to financially assist researchers at the center in moving their focused, highly-specialized research to a point where the work is ready to be backed by external funding.

With ITRAC, researchers at the cancer center form cores of expertise where researchers can receive assistance with mapping their projects to the point of being ready to submit proposals for grant funds. The core groups analyze the projects and decisions to move forward are based on that analysis.

"Decisions are based on data and what we need," Kelley said. "And they are not based on personalities and politics."

Kelley, associate director of both basic science research at the hospital and of the Wells Center for Pediatric Research, said the ITRAC program helps bring researchers together in a way that breeds accountability and transparency.

"That is how you can really build collaboration," he said. "And how you make sure people know other people exist."

The program, which has already mapped or developed collaborations on more than 125 projects, also accelerates development of research products from "bench to market," which ultimately benefits patients.

Apex Therapeutics, which Kelley cofounded, is a perfect example of how researchers working together can move projects forward into the market phase. The new company, set to be located in the IU Research and Technology Center in Indianapolis, looks to develop small molecule anti-cancer therapies.

"It's taken some time for people to relate to the program," he said. "But it's here to facilitate them in getting things done."