A collection of textbooks covering multiple scientific disciplines - from Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/sararah/2329491170/

Today we launch two new funding schemes to researchers across the country, covering two emerging areas in the field of cancer research. So what are they? And, if you’re a scientist, might they be right for you? To explain all, Jamie Meredith, our head of programme funding has written this guest post.

Our research has made a big impact on the understanding of cancer. And the scientists we fund are world-leaders in piecing together the molecular nuts and bolts of the disease and developing new ways to diagnose and treat it.

But how might a physicist see things differently to a biologist? Could mathematics have a role to play in solving the cancer puzzle? And how can we learn more from researchers in the fields of infection and inflammation to find new ways to harness the body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer?

Bringing outside expertise to bear on cancer has already opened up some exciting avenues in research, such as this collaboration in Cambridge, between astronomers and our breast cancer researchers.

Through new technology and combined efforts, the researchers were able to analyse many more samples than a lone pathologist would by eye – while maintaining the crucial levels of accuracy required when diagnosing cancer.

But how can we do more research like this, and accelerate these sorts of collaborations?

These are just some of the questions we’ve been pondering. And they have ultimately led to the launch of two new funding schemes for scientists. These will bring together experts from previously untapped research fields, bringing a fresh approach to what we do.

So what are they?

Multidisciplinary research

As with the astronomy project, we want to draw on the ideas and thoughts of diverse fields of research, bringing them together to provide a fresh take on cancer.

An indelible mark

“From the tests we use to diagnose cancer to the therapies we have to treat it, the combined effort of researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds has left an indelible mark on how we look at the disease.

“We need to build more of these collaborations in the future as they will be crucial in developing the next generation of tools to take on cancer, and this new funding scheme will play a major part in making that happen.”

– Professor Sir Mike Brady, Chair of the Cancer Research UK Multidisciplinary Expert Review Panel

Specifically, we’re looking to tap into the world of engineering and physical sciences.

This spans a large area of research interests – including physics, mathematics, engineering and chemistry – and in the context of cancer, these communities have the potential to helps us understand more about the basic elements of the disease, while also developing new technologies and methods for detecting and treating it.

This has happened before. While physicists knew how to bend a beam of radiation, it took engineers, biologists and doctors working together to turn this into the radiotherapy machines that are so vital in treating cancer.

But it’s not just about making new machines. Geneticists are revealing the power of the genome – each genetic ‘letter’ found in our DNA code – along with some of the faults within this code that are linked to cancer.

And yes, targeted treatments that are designed to attack cells bearing these precise faults have emerged from these findings.

But to reach that ultimate goal of truly ‘personalised medicine’ we will need the expertise of mathematicians and computer scientists to develop new ways to process huge amounts of genetic data in a timeframe relevant to patients – hours, rather than weeks or months.

In some areas we already fund this type of research, but we need to do more. To accelerate our progress and really translate these ideas into new technologies we decided we needed to give these sorts of projects their own funding boost.

These projects are often the exciting spin-offs that researchers may not have the money or expertise to follow up. We want to change that.

But how do we get these teams of scientists together? In some cases they speak entirely different scientific languages, yet they could hold the answers to each other’s most tricky questions.

Through our new multidisciplinary scheme we’ll be bringing these scientists together – one group led by a ‘traditional’ cancer researcher and the other from any of the engineering or physical sciences disciplines. If there’s something with real potential to change how we do things in cancer research, we want to hear about it.

Successful applications for our new scheme will receive around £500,000 for up to four years of research, and we’ll initially be looking to fund around 10 projects.

Immunology and cancer

But it’s not just the world of engineering and physical sciences that we can learn from. We’ve also recently seen an explosion in the field of cancer immunotherapy – harnessing the body’s own immune system to target cancer.

The potential offered by a greater understanding of the immune system is huge. And once again, we must venture into the research communities that have not previously been on our radar, building collaborative projects that can yield benefits for people with cancer.

At the moment we see two big, yet related, opportunities for our new immunology scheme.

The first follows that explosion in interest in immunotherapies – something that’s been written about here recently.

These treatments are showing great early promise in clinical trials, illustrating the need to understand the immune system better.

To do this we need immunologists, something the UK research community has plenty of, particularly in the field of research of infectious diseases and inflammation. But unfortunately, not many of them are working on cancer. And it’s in this space where our second opportunity arises.

The more research we do on the very basics of cancer, the more we see that the immune system is involved. For example, as we begin to understand how the cells, tissues and blood vessels that surround a tumour also play a vital role in how the disease grows and spreads, scientists are finding immune cells are heavily involved in these processes.

So there will be clear parallels between the discoveries made by immunologists working on infection or inflammation and important processes in cancer. But how do we tap into their expertise?

The UK immunology scene is particularly strong, and to understand more about how the immune system influences cancer we will need to collaborate with these scientists. Our new immunology scheme will provide around £300,000 for up to three years of research and will support non-cancer immunologist in applying their research to cancer.

The experts of the future

A key part of these new funding schemes will be accommodating researchers at an early stage in their career who might not have otherwise seen the application of their research to cancer.

By building these collaborations now, we can be better placed to help these scientists develop into the experts of the future. For example there may be immunology labs with expertise in infection or inflammation carrying a lone scientist working on tumour immunology. But by linking them up with our scientists now, they may be able to carve out their own niche and bring new ideas to the table.

Similarly, engineering or physical sciences teams working on real-life technologies may not be aware of the potential their ideas have for cancer, or don’t know how to take it there. But by picking up these ideas now we can translate them into new diagnostics or treatments for people quicker than ever before.

Ultimately this is about taking a fresh approach. The different ways that engineers, physicists, mathematicians, chemists and immunologists approach their work will open up new ways of thinking and problem solving that we may never have considered before. And it’s something we’re really excited about exploring.

This is our goal as we look at how we fund research. We’re aiming to build a community that shares our ambition to make a real difference for people with cancer – and by working together, we will beat cancer sooner.

Jamie Meredith is head of programme funding at Cancer Research UK

More info

For researchers interested in our new awards and for information on how to make an application, visit these pages on our website:

Textbook image from Flickr