Statisticians are the backbone - and more - of our cancer trials. From initial trial design through final data analysis, they give both shape and meaning to our work. As the SWOG Cancer Research Network has grown, and as cancer research becomes more complex, our stats team has grown and changed with us.

But not sufficiently quickly. At a March retreat of the Hope Foundation for Cancer Research board in Denver, we talked about how difficult it is to develop and conduct translational medicine studies, and how we wanted to tackle more elaborate ways to combine trial results with other sources, such as registry data (SEER) or claims data (Medicare). It was clear we couldn’t do this without more people at stats. So why don’t we hire some?

A few months later, I am pleased to report that Group Statistician Mike LeBlanc and his team will do just that. Hope just inked a $1 million pledge to be paid out over four years to the stats center, specifically to build capacity for translational medicine studies, as well as secondary analyses and other complex data projects. The funding will begin in January, with the first of four $250,000 payments to be awarded through 2022. At the retreat, when our stats conversation started, Mike was briefly out of the room. Now he likes to joke that it was the most successful bathroom break he’s ever taken!

To be sure, Hope has always supported the SWOG stats center, through Coltman Fellowships, through secondary analysis grants, and through partial salary support for a statistician for our rare cancers and early therapeutics committee, which has a heavy translational medicine focus. But this new gift is notable for its size and specificity. That additional $250,000 a year for four years will go directly to hire two PhD-level data scientists, such as a post-doc. Biostatistician Mike Wu will select and manage the TM hire, and biostatistician Joe Unger will select and manage the new complex data analyst.

The issue of capacity – and capacity building – was also addressed in the National Cancer Institute grant that Mike and his team submitted this year. It included a request for several new hires, so that our stats, data operations, and information technology staff can ramp up along with our trials (with their remarkable grant score of 12, I hope stats gets its funding request!) Our staff capacity isn’t lacking because TM studies are inherently difficult, Mike will tell you. It’s just that pursuing anything beyond primary trial objectives simply requires more time. Think about it. Many SWOG trials now not only include primary objectives, but secondary objectives, as well as TM endpoints, patient-reported outcomes, and more. And that makes sense. If we’re going to spend years and significant dollars to run a clinical study, we certainly want to answer as many different and meaningful questions as we can.

This is what the hires will mean to members and patients: Our trials will move faster, and should be more innovative. New blood tends to bring in creative new ideas. Jo Horn says the pledge means something else, too. It’s a vote of confidence, and a decision by the Hope board to leverage past giving, building a tradition of active investment in our stats team.