publication date: Jul. 21, 2017

Cancer Research UK awarding £20 million Grand Challenge grants to cancer researchers worldwide

By Paul Goldberg

Cancer Research UK calls its Grand Challenge “the most ambitious cancer research grant in the world.” And it may be just that.

The challenge, now in its second phase, plans to give out several £20 million awards over five years to researchers who would be willing to address one of eight challenge areas.

The strategy—borrowed from mathematics—is to identify the most significant barriers to making progress and challenge scientists all over the world to join forces to answer them. The Grand Challenge provides the largest single response-mode grants available in cancer research, CRUK said.

The approach of focusing the attention of an entire discipline on a specific set of questions originated with David Hilbert, a German mathematician. In 1900, Hilbert identified 23 problems and presented 10 of them at the Paris conference of the International Congress of Mathematicians. His list of challenges had in effect set the course for research in mathematics through much of the 20th century.

In 2003, Hilbert’s approach was adapted to global health research by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Answers to the foundation’s challenges were reviewed by the Gates Foundation in partnership with the Foundations for NIH. Later, NCI Director Harold Varmus channeled the approach into his signature Provocative Questions program, which despite being scaled down over the years, continues to make grants.

“The grant systems around the world have become atomized,” said Richard Klausner, a biotechnology entrepreneur, former NCI director, and chair of the Grand Challenge advisory panel. “The best model is the [NIH] R01, which is into funding projects—and that’s fine. I’m not criticizing them, but what we’re trying to do with the [CRUK] Grand Challenge is to fund the solutions of problems.”

Klausner, former executive director of the Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the idea for grand challenges arose from his conversation with Bill Gates.

“There are several reasons why it’s so exciting, but I think, most importantly, it gets at actually why people want to go into science,” Klausner said to The Cancer Letter. “No one goes into science because they want to do a series of projects. They want to take on big problems; right? They want to take big problems that seem important, that seem on the edge of doable, pushing the envelope of being doable and really a stretch, but not unrealistic.”

A conversation with Klausner appears here.

In the new round of the CRUK Grand Challenge, collaborations will be asked to:

  • Devise approaches to prevent or treat cancer based on mechanisms that determine tissue specificity of some cancer genes.

  • Create novel tumor vaccinology approaches that establish or enhance successful immune responses beyond what is revealed by current checkpoint therapy.

  • Define mechanistic rules for combinatorial treatments to overcome resistance and avoid toxicity.

  • Distinguish between lethal cancers which need treating, and non-lethal cancers that don’t.

  • Identify and target tumor cells that remain dormant for many years after seemingly effective treatment.

  • Detect cancer earlier by interrogating medical and non-medical data sets using machine and deep-learning.

  • Improve treatment responses by manipulating the composition and status of the microbiota.

  • Determine the mechanisms that cause cancer without known mutagenesis, such as obesity, in order to devise novel interventions.

Now, with eight challenges articulated, researchers will have six months to assemble teams and submit outline proposals before the shortlisted teams are announced in the autumn. Cancer Research UK will then seed-fund shortlisted teams, thus allowing them to develop full applications which the advisory panel will review before determining those that display the ambition and high quality to receive funding.

Additional information on the Grand Challenges is posted here.

The recipients will be announced in the fall of 2018.

The CRUK Independent Scientific Advisory Panel includes:

  • Klausner;

  • Adrian Bird, the Buchanan Professor of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh;

  • Suzanne Cory, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research;

  • Ed Harlow, professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School;

  • David Lane, chief scientist of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore, scientific director of Ludwig Cancer Research, and chairman of Chugai Pharmabody;

  • Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer;

  • René Bernards, professor of molecular carcinogenesis at Utrecht University and head of the section of molecular carcinogenesis at the Netherlands Cancer Institute-Antoni van Leeuwenhoekziekenuis;

  • Brian Druker, director of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute, Jeld-Wen Chair of Leukemia Research;

  • Nic Jones, professor and director, CRUK Manchester Centre; and

  • Elizabeth Jaffee, deputy director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, the Dana and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli professor of oncology, and professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In 2016, during the first phase, nine teams were shortlisted from 56 bids, against seven Grand Challenges.

The inaugural four teams undertaking Grand Challenge projects are working to:

  • Study tumor metabolism from every angle. Lead investigator: Josephine Bunch, National Physical Laboratory, UK.

  • Prevent unnecessary breast cancer treatment. Lead investigator: Jelle Wesseling, Netherlands Cancer Institute, The Netherlands

  • Create virtual reality maps of tumors. Lead investigator: Greg Hannon, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK.

  • Identify unknown preventable causes of cancer. Lead investigator: Mike Stratton, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK.

Copyright (c) 2017 The Cancer Letter Inc.