New transatlantic cancer research partnership

Image of a compas on a blue background with clouds and paper aeroplanes to show New transatlantic cancer research partnership

The two largest funders of cancer research in the world are set to make radical progress against cancer with a new scientific cancer research partnership, uniting researchers from around the world to tackle cancer’s greatest challenges.

Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) – the U.S. federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training – have announced that they are the founding partners of the Cancer Grand Challenges initiative, which will target the growing global cancer burden by addressing critical roadblocks in research.

This new partnership brings the Cancer Grand Challenges investment to £426m ($US 550m). Cancer Research UK and NCI expect to co-fund approximately four awards for each round of Cancer Grand Challenges, with each multidisciplinary team being awarded approximately £20 million ($US 25M) over five years – one of the largest awards in the world for cancer research.

According to the World Health Organisation, cancer is the second leading cause of death around the world and growing all the time. In 2018, cancer claimed 9.6 million lives, accounting for one in six deaths worldwide*. This growing universal cancer burden exerts tremendous physical, emotional and financial strain on individuals, families, communities and healthcare systems. As the world continues to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pivotal role that science plays in solving worldwide public health challenges has become ever more apparent.

Cancer Grand Challenges is a unique international platform and marks a significant ‘gear shift’ in efforts to confront the ever-growing global cancer burden. Cancer Research UK and NCI aim to galvanise the research community across the globe, asking them to think creatively and to act more boldly than ever before to radically speed up progress against cancer. The scale of the initiative will empower researchers to make transformative leaps rather than incremental advances.

Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, Chair of the Cancer Grand Challenges Scientific Committee, said: “Having worked much of my life carrying out research related to cancer, I have seen the great progress we’ve made, but there is still a mountain of work left to do.

“We need to take our understanding of cancer up a gear. Cancer Grand Challenges will allow the global research community to work in synergy together to make the advances that patients around the world need. 

“Cancer Grand Challenges is a platform that brings together governments, philanthropists, foundations and charities to take on the huge challenge of cancer, making it easier to put in place a united and international approach, supporting researchers who can make a difference for patients in the future.” 

As part of the Cancer Grand Challenges launch, Cancer Research UK and NCI will set a selection of challenges for the global research community, addressing some of the biggest questions in the field.

The process to determine these questions began in 2019 with a series of international workshops involving thought leaders from the cancer research community and people affected by cancer, who provided input to Cancer Research UK. As funding partners, Cancer Research UK and NCI are reviewing the most compelling ideas to make a final selection, which will be announced in October 2020.


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Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, said: “For people affected by cancer, progress can’t come quickly enough. Too many lives are cut short by the disease. We’re still facing major barriers to the breakthroughs that are sorely needed, and the scale of the challenge must be matched by our ambition and commitment.

“COVID-19 has delayed progress and impacted cancer patients everywhere, so it’s even more important for researchers to come together to tackle problems that are too big for any one institution and country. Our partnership with NCI on Cancer Grand Challenges will unlock the possibility for our finest researchers to think beyond their most ambitious projects, free from the constraints of traditional incremental funding streams.

“But our collaboration is more than the sum of our investment. It’s an aspiration to build a global interchange of talent, bold ideas and resources to spark new and creative approaches to cancer research and transform diagnosis, prevention and treatment for cancer patients across the world.”

Ned Sharpless M.D., Director of the National Cancer Institute, said: “This new partnership leverages the expertise of the world’s leading funders of cancer research in a bold effort to identify and pursue innovative ideas that address major challenges in understanding cancer. We’re thrilled to join Cancer Research UK in this unique collaboration to support novel cancer research on a global scale.”

Cancer Grand Challenges is an evolution of Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge initiative, through which seven teams have already been funded since 2017. Teams are tackling a range of challenges, which includes building 3D tumours that can be explored through virtual reality, allowing multiple doctors and scientists to look at the tumour at the same time so they can diagnose and treat patients better.

Another team is addressing the challenge of improving cancer treatment responses by manipulating the trillions of microbes found in our gut, collectively known as the microbiome. The team have recently uncovered a link between E.coli – a common gut bacteria – and bowel cancer, a connection which has never been made before. The success of the initiative has attracted the support from other drivers of cancer research, such as the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research and the Dutch Cancer Society who have each co-funded a Grand Challenge award.  

Professor Josephine Bunch, Cancer Grand Challenges team lead at the National Physical Laboratory, UK, said: “Our team has developed advanced imaging and analysis techniques that allow us to build ultra-high-resolution maps of cancer from a whole tumour right down to what’s inside the cells, like a ‘Google Earth’ of cancer.

“Using our detailed cancer maps, we can delve into the tumour and see how drugs change the way cancer cells consume energy. This will help us to identify which people will and won’t benefit from a certain therapy. And if we’re able to match them with the right treatment early on, we’ll be giving them the best possible chance of recovery.

“Being an analytical chemist, I never thought that I would be working in cancer research. But Cancer Grand Challenges has given me a unique opportunity to team up with leading experts outside my field to help find better ways to diagnose and treat cancer.”

Margaret Grayson, Chair of the Cancer Grand Challenges Advocacy Panel, said: “As patients, we may not be experts in science, but we are experts at living with the disease – we know what it’s like to hear those words of a cancer diagnosis, to go through treatment, and we know the impact on friends and family.

“I firmly believe that combining our experience of living with cancer with the researchers’ scientific expertise will lead to the breakthroughs we desperately need, so we can make the future brighter for those who are yet to receive a cancer diagnosis.”