Up for the Challenge: Cancer Research UK Grants £71M to Four Grand Challenge Research Teams

March 21, 2017
Up for the Challenge: Cancer Research UK Grants £71M to Four Grand Challenge Research Teams
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) had intended to make only one award this year in its £100 million Grand Challenge research initiative, but expanded that to four awards based on the overall strength of the 56 applications it received.

Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief

London-based cancer charity Cancer Research UK (CRUK) named four teams as inaugural grant recipients in its £100 million Grand Challenge research initiative, which seeks to “overcome the biggest challenges facing cancer researchers in a global effort to beat cancer sooner.”

In total, the four international teams will receive up to £71 million, and will conduct innovative research to identify unknown causes of cancer, prevent unnecessary breast cancer treatments, study tumor metabolism, and create virtual reality tumor maps.

Launched in late 2015, the Grand Challenge brought together a panel of the world’s leading cancer experts to identify the seven most significant problems in cancer research. According to Harpal Kumar, chief executive of CRUK, the original intent was for CRUK to choose one research group in the first round to address one of the seven cancer research challenges and provide up to £20 million over five years to fund their work.

But those plans soon changed after the organization received applications from 56 teams, spanning 200 research organizations, hailing from 25 countries, and representing more than 400 separate research groups.

“Having initially expected to fund just one of these teams in the first round, we were so blown away by the quality of what we saw that, through some additional philanthropy, [and] through a new partnership with the Dutch Cancer Society, we have now seen a way to funding four of these proposals,” said Kumar.

The chair of the advisory panel for the Grand Challenge initiative is former National Cancer Institute director Richard Klausner, M.D. In a press briefing announcing the first four award recipients, Dr. Klausner said he believes the structure and scope of the initiative breaks the mold of how cancer research is traditionally funded.

“Largely because of how we fund science globally—not least of which from the institution I used to run—we fund projects,” Dr. Klausner said. “Some organizations fund people, but mostly we fund projects. And they are mostly small projects—none of which represents the essence of why scientists are scientists, why people are drawn to work in cancer. That is: they are drawn not to do projects, but to solve problems.”

These grants, Klausner continued, would allow scientists to have the freedom, flexibility, funding, and connections to work with other researchers as a team.

The four winning teams are:

  • A project led by Mike Stratton, M.D., Ph.D., at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, U.K., with collaborators from France, the U.S., and U.K., will study cancer samples from five continents to detail the DNA damage associated with different cancers in order to understand what causes them, and if they can be prevented.
  • Research to distinguish between those women with DCIS (a condition that can develop into breast cancer) who need treatment and those who don’t, to reduce overtreatment of the condition. The project will be led by Jelle Wesseling, M.D., Ph.D., at the Netherlands Cancer Institute with collaborators from the U.S., U.K., and the Netherlands.
  • The third project team will be headed by Josephine Bunch, Ph.D., at the National Physical Laboratory, London. Dr. Bunch’s team will develop a method to combine new and existing technologies to create virtual representations of tumors, and a global database that catalogs their genetic make-up and metabolism. Collaborators hail from the U.S. and multiple research centers in the U.K.
  • The final team aims to create a VR 3D tumor map that will allow scientists and doctors to examine—for the first time and in unprecedented detail—the cellular and molecular make-up of a patient’s entire tumor to improve diagnosis and treatment for the disease. This project will be led by Greg Hannon, Ph.D., at the University of Cambridge, with collaborators from Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, the U.S., and U.K.

Dr. Stratton, who will lead the effort to find the behavioral and environmental factors that can cause cancer by damaging the DNA of human cells, perhaps epitomizes the mindset CRUK leaders value when making their award choices.

“The first thing that is really exciting me is the challenge of making it happen,” Dr. Stratton said. “The thing I’m most looking forward to is seeing the answers—to seeing the DNA sequences roll off the machines and begin to see the patterns.”

While the work of the four teams will seek to break important new ground in our understanding of cancer, there is also a sense of pragmatism as they embark on their work.

“We don’t necessarily expect . . . that you will totally succeed,” said Dr. Klausner addressing the four team leaders in a press event announcing the awards. “The leap we are hoping [for], and that we are hoping you will take, represent leaps that haven’t been taken before. But we are absolutely convinced that the journeys you all, and your colleagues, are about to take will make this all worthwhile.”

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