IMAT is a highly successful, long-standing NCI program focused on early stage technology development and the validation and adaptation of emerging technologies to meet the specific needs of cancer researchers and clinicians. By taking calculated risks and soliciting the most cutting-edge ideas, by restricting the application pool to those projects which are truly transformative and revolutionary rather than evolutionary, IMAT fills a void that no other program at the NCI or NIH fills. It initiates the development of the next wave of technologies for cancer research and initiates the pipeline of technology development that ultimately enables a broad range of basic research as well as informed clinical decision making.
By taking risks on early stage transformative technologies, IMAT has been responsible for many of the block-buster technologies that are now on the market and in almost ubiquitous use across the cancer research and clinical communities. Successfully commercialized products such as RNALater, Affymetrix gene chips, Illumina bead platforms, and Quantum dot labelling technology were all considered high-risk ideas at the time of their inception and initial funding through the IMAT Program. Yet, their current widespread use and applicability to multiple clinical and basic sciences research settings are a testament to the high pay-off (both financially and biomedically) and impact that such transformative technologies have provided to the field of cancer research. By soliciting and supporting these otherwise risky technologies through the IMAT Program, the NCI has supported not only the development of these new transformative technologies in and of themselves but also supported them in a manner consistent with providing researchers rapid access to such platforms through appropriate commercialization and dissemination. The NCI has thus taken risks to substantiate the ultimate value and utility of such technologies even in cases where venture capital (VC) firms may have been reluctant to do so due to the inherent risks associated with highly innovative technology development and in light of the current economic climate.
By supporting technologies like the gene chip technologies of ten years ago, the IMAT Program has assisted in scaling the problem of producing quantitative, rapid, and cost-effective measures of gene expression, a problem which represented a significant technical and scientific obstacle only a decade ago. Currently, there are new challenges facing cancer researchers and clinicians and, as such, the need for a sustained technology development pipeline encompassing inception and initiation (i.e. the ‘bright idea’ stage) through dissemination and commercialization has never been greater. Challenges represented by the need to rapidly assess all of the epigenetic changes in single cells, directly measuring microenvironment impact on cancer metastasis, collecting rare cells from the blood of patients with recurrent disease require creative thinking and risk-taking to enable research in a manner similar to the way that gene expression profiling is currently enabled. IMAT seeks to fill this void by: 1) empowering small commercial entities such as small business concerns to think creatively, 2) stimulating such firms or their technologists to partner with biologists and clinicians who face similar technical challenges, and 3) taking the risk needed to break through common technical barriers that currently impede research and effective clinical decision making. By accomplishing these goals, the IMAT Program seeks to stimulate and sustain progress in the field of cancer research at a pace that is revolutionary rather than evolutionary and to ensure the adequate and equal dissemination of knowledge that stems from such an approach.