First round of Bertarelli Rare Cancers Fund grants awarded

Following the establishment of the Bertarelli Rare Cancers Fund at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in 2019, the first round of grants was awarded in 2020, with more than $9 million distributed to nine teams representing more than 19 lead and co-lead investigators across HMS and its affiliated hospitals. Research kicked off this winter.

HMS Dean George Q. Daley said:

“This exciting new program will advance our capacity to prevent, treat, and cure rare cancers, which, combined, affect many tens of thousands of patients and their loved ones in this country each year. By building research capacity and cross-institutional collaboration, the fund helps us pursue our mission of generating new biological insights and treatment strategies that improve health for all.”

Dona Bertarelli commented:

“We have a shared ambition to conduct research and innovate for the good of society. It’s clear that there is a need and an opportunity to accelerate transformative rare cancer research, and it is my hope that the fund will create a community of researchers who will, in collaboration with scientists around the world, transform the understanding, treatment, and care of rare cancers.”

It can be hard to make research progress in a rare cancer. For instance, tissue samples are scarce and pharmaceutical companies have less incentive to develop drugs for small patient markets. Academic institutions such as HMS can be particularly helpful, Daley said.

With the fresh infusion from the Bertarelli fund, HMS is able to build the infrastructure, generate the knowledge, and strengthen the research communities for rare cancers that more common cancers benefit from.

The ultimate goal is to improve the detection, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of rare cancers.

The gift “shines a spotlight on the needs of rare cancer research” and addresses some of those needs by “supporting promising new research, bringing researchers together, and showing patients that progress can be made,” said fund director Ed Harlow, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Cancer Research and Teaching in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS.

The first grants span basic, translational, and clinical science while linking junior and senior faculty across the HMS community. The multidisciplinary collaborations promise to approach problems from different perspectives and produce stronger science.

Grant recipients are investigating different individual rare cancers as well as genetic and molecular mechanisms that span multiple rare cancers.

The fund administrators plan to support projects that build biological tools for studying clear cell cancers, including cell lines, xenografts, and three-dimensional tissue structures known as organoids.

To learn more about the Bertarelli Rare Cancers Fund and the different projects, visit: