Transatlantic partnership to connect world researchers to solve cancer’s toughest problems


Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute , are uniting to define a new era in cancer research and discovery


Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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

Cancer Research UK – the world’s largest independent cancer research charity – and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) – the U.S. federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training – have announced today 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 $550 million (£426M). 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 $25 million (£20M) 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 1 in 6 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.

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 7 teams have already been funded since 2017. Teams are tackling a range of challenges, which includes building 3D tumors that can be explored through virtual reality, allowing multiple doctors and scientists to look at the tumor 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 Wendy Garrett, Cancer Grand Challenges team co-lead at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, US, said: “To do the most exciting and innovative research that ultimately has the power to do the most good, you have to take big risks, and this is what Cancer Grand Challenges is all about.

“We’re already seeing this approach paying off in our first year, with the discovery of a direct link between bacteria in our microbiome and DNA damage found in bowel cancers.

It is my hope that together, our global team of cancer biologists, microbiologists and immunologists will build on this success and help drive new prevention strategies for bowel cancer.”

Candace Henley, Cancer Grand Challenges patient advocate, said: “It is a privilege to be able to share my experience as a patient. Having a gene mutation is almost like having a ticking time-bomb, you don’t know when that bomb’s going to go off again. So, this research is imperative to the future not just for me, but for my children and my grandchildren.

“I’ve learned so much from discussing the project’s progress with the researchers and helping them prepare information for the patients in their studies. It’s wonderful to be able to share in, and celebrate their achievements and hopefully, we also help remind them that the work they are doing is not just numbers – it’s saving someone’s life.”


Notes to editor:
* World Health Organisation.
** World Health Organisation. Cancer in Children. Accessed February 2020.


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Daimona Kounde
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