Zigang Dong & Ann Bode, Editors-in-Chief, NPJ Precision Oncology

Springer Nature and the Hormel Insitute of University Minnesota have partnered to build a new open access home for all things precision oncology. 

It’s safe to say that getting published in Nature is about as good as it gets for authors of original research. With such a high impact title on their hands, and not to mention all the other nature branded journals out there, you’d be forgiven for thinking the publishers, Springer Nature, might rest on their laurels. That’s exactly what they haven’t done. Nature Partner Journals, are a great innovation in open access journals produced in partnership with global academic institutions, centres of excellence, philanthropic funders, and membership associations. When the publishers wanted to launch a new journal dedicated to publishing high-quality research describing the significant and leading research covering all aspects of precision oncology from basic science to translational applications and clinical medicine, The Hormel Institute was a natural choice as partner. 

FLG: How did your partnership with Springer Nature come about?

AB: Their editors approached us because of the work that we do in cancer prevention and therapeutics. They were interested in having an online journal that focused on precision oncology. This is their only oncology partner journal as such, so they were very interested in negotiating with us to have this partnership. They approached us about a year ago and the first issue launched this past March.

ZD: They were very serious with the idea and did a lot of investigation. Following an interview and a survey, they decided to launch the journal.

AB: They did a very thorough review. We had to submit a proposal of what the journal would be. That was then sent out to over 20 scientists to review the concept. It was all very positive and the response has been really very, very good.

FLG: What was it in particular that attracted the interest from Springer Nature?

AB: We have a lot of connections all over the world. In particular the Hormel Cancer Institute in Zhengzhou, that is also part of this partnership.

ZD: We publish a lot of papers in this field and they noticed that.

AB: We usually publish around 25-30 manuscripts a year out of our laboratory.

ZD: I also work with many other cancer journals as either Associate Editor or Senior Associate Editor. I’m working with almost all of the cancer journals.

FLG: What are the central pillars of precision oncology that define it from the broader scope of oncology?

AB: I think the trend is really towards precision treatments – looking at a patient’s genetic profile and making treatments that really go after the specific cancer. Cancer is at least 200 different diseases. They vary between the same person and also between patients that have the same kind of cancer. They are very, very different. One treatment doesn’t fit all. It just doesn’t. So there’s a trend in the clinic, and in the research community, to really target the precise mechanisms that cause specific types of cancers.

ZD: That, of course, includes three parts – precision diagnosis, precision prevention, and precision therapy. I think it’s relatively very broad, but it’s in understanding the precise mechanisms that makes this ‘precision oncology’.

FLG: How has the journal been received so far?

ZD: It’s been wonderful.

AB: I think the publishers are very pleased; it’s gone better than they thought. We’ve been in the process of collecting articles for a year, but we needed to have enough content to be able to have new articles every month or every two weeks. Now we have enough content through the summer. We continue to get inquiries for serving on the editorial board as well as article submissions. Our Managing Editor seems to be very pleased, since she’s said more than once that it’s taken off way more than they thought it would. At our reception at AACR, we had about two hundred people show up. It was really something. We’re also getting a community website up and running to support the journal. We’ve just hired a scientific writer who will be driving that with more news based articles and blog style content to help generate more traffic.

FLG: What kind of submissions are you looking for in particular? What is it that you want the journal to be known for?

ZD: So we actually think this will be cancer research in a broader range journal for Springer Nature. Our scope should be from basic research through to diagnosis, into drug development and therapy. We’re looking for these things in very precise mechanisms, really high impact breakthroughs. Those are the papers we are looking for. We’re also including case studies, perspectives, and reviews.

AB: For example, there are a lot of treatments where there are a lot of non-responders and then there are very good responders. We’re very interested in those types of studies where there could be an n-of-1. We try to include as much as possible, but be very high quality.

FLG: How has the field of oncology changed from when you first started out?

ZD: It has really changed so dramatically in the last few years, especially with so much sequencing data available and many labs using big data. Precise patient diagnoses came out first, and then you started to see so many new drugs for targeted therapy.

AB: The technology has really driven the field. Nowadays you can go online and get a kit to have your DNA sequenced for $100. I can remember doing gels where it took days to sequence one gene. As well as all the huge databases out there, the development of high-end technologies like cryo-electron microscopes have had a big influence. You can visualise things down to the atomic level at high resolutions now. Twenty years ago you wouldn’t even think of it.

FLG: What are some of the things that are getting you excited for the future?

AB: Cancer stem cell research is still developing, but that’s probably going to be a major impact in the field. We’re trying to develop instrumentation to be able to detect cancer stem cells in circulation and take them away. So there’s all that kind of technology that’s very, very new and is just in the process of being developed and it’ll have a huge impact within ten years.

ZD: Especially for liquid biopsies, which are really trending right now.

AB: Also immune treatments. They have really made a difference in a cancer patient’s life that didn’t really have another hope. Now they have hope because of the immune therapies.

FLG: I read the commentary article that both of you wrote for your journal on precision medicine as a foundation of future therapeutics. The last statement you made was, ‘The challenge of tumour heterogeneity should not discourage or intimidate efforts to overcome cancer but should push the field forward.’ Could you expand a little on what you meant there and how you would like to see that challenge taken on?

ZD: A lot of the commentary articles on the topic of precision medicine have a relatively negative attitude. Even though it’s really challenging, we do think that new technologies and new breakthroughs will come out every day. We should not be discouraged because of that. We believe that we’ll eventually overcome this and make progress.

AB: The article was really driven by the commentaries that people had written where they really think that precision medicine isn’t going to work. We just don’t agree with that. They’ve based it on just a few clinical studies. There isn’t nearly enough data to make that kind of conclusion. It’s still controversial and not everyone has bought into it. As time goes on, I think more and more people are going to start thinking, ‘Yes, it is going to work.’

FLG: How big a part of making precision oncology an everyday reality for cancer treatment do you anticipate the journal is going to play?

AB: Well, we hope a big part. We’re pretty anxious to get the community site up and running. It will help influence the journal’s impact, and also allow people to participate and put their thoughts down. It’s something we’ll be able to learn from.

ZD: We want to maybe even get the clinicians, oncologists, and the patients participating.

FLG: How do you see the patients getting involved?

ZD: It’s something we’ll have to monitor, and hire someone to work on.

AB: A lot of people have stories to tell. I’m aware of a case of a friend of mine who had lung cancer. It had two or three reoccurrences. It was nearly the end when the clinicians put her on the immune therapy. When she went back for a CAT scan it was gone. After being hopeless, all of a sudden there was hope.

ZD: Many of our authors will be involved in that. Many of them are oncologists or physician-scientists. They have the best new technology, new drugs, new ways to treat cancer… I think they will also probably be very happy to help patients through the website.

AB: From the ones I’ve talked to, if there’s a new treatment, they want to try it. They see a lot of people that have no hope. I think that’s part of the community: people telling their stories and participating and interacting, and just learning. It’s about support. 

This interview was originally in Front Line Genomics Magazine, issue 12.