Dear Colleague Letter: MPS-NCI SuPporting new AReas of Knowledge (SPARK): Cancer as a Living Material – New Ideas and New Connection

Funding Agency:
National Science Foundation

January 3, 2023

Dear Colleague:

The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Materials Research (DMR) in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) announces a new collaboration with the Division of Cancer Biology (DCB) and the Center for Cancer Training (CCT) of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This collaboration emerged from a series of Square-Table workshops [12] between MPS and DCB, including a workshop on Living Materials. This workshop highlighted an opportunity to accelerate an emerging interdisciplinary field in which cancer can be studied as a living material. Inspired by this workshop, this Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) seeks to encourage submission of supplemental funding requests to existing NSF awards to promote convergence between materials researchers and cancer researchers to study cancer as a living material and promote new collaborations, cross-training, and exchange of expertise via:

  1. the support for visiting graduate students and/or postdoctoral researchers bringing materials science expertise to cancer labs or cancer research expertise to materials science labs. One or both labs must have current NCI or NSF funding in order to receive supplement funding to support the visiting researcher(s).

  2. the initiation of new collaborative research between materials researchers and cancer researchers; and/or

  3. the development of workshops or collaboration building events that promote exchange of ideas or convergence in materials research and cancer research.

A living material can be defined as a composite of engineered materials and living cells that is adaptive, self-assembling, self-replicating and modulating its properties or function in response to its environment. Many fundamental scientific questions remain outstanding in the development of truly living materials. These questions include understanding the dynamic interactions between extracellular matrix material and cells, harnessing control of that interface in response to external stimuli to modulate characteristics of the whole composite, and frontier questions of emergent structures far-from-equilibrium.

Cancer exhibits characteristics of a prototypical living material with its emergent structure, modulation of that structure and properties in response to external stimuli, and modification of its local environment to promote and safeguard the emergent structures. In viewing cancer through this lens, researchers may advance the understanding and development of novel adaptive living materials that are cancer-inspired. These living materials may be applied to non-biomedical applications, aid in elucidating properties of living materials per se, or lead to increased understanding of cancer properties. In turn, researchers may further the development of functionalized materials that reflect the heterogeneous and dynamic nature of cancer in vivo. Further, this effort and outcomes coordinate government efforts to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing towards innovative solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.

  • Prior to submission of a supplemental funding request, PIs must provide a brief 1–2-page description of the proposed effort to the NSF or NCI Program Director listed later in this DCL and to the cognizant NSF or NCI Program Officer for the award to be supplemented. Descriptions must be submitted via email by February 9th, 2023.
  • Supplemental funding requests can only be submitted after invitation by the cognizant NSF or NCI Program Officer. The email inviting the submission must be included in the supplemental funding request. Uninvited requests for supplemental funding will be returned without review.
  • The deadline for submission of invited supplemental funding requests is March 10th, 2023.




Engineering and Physical Sciences
Environmental & Life Sciences
Medical - Basic Science
Medical - Clinical Science
Medical - Translational

External Deadline

February 9, 2023