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Can you help a research team grow 3D lung tissue in a lab to help study cancer? Can we track how moving skin cancer cells give the immune system the slip? Or is there a way to develop a vaccine to treat cancers caused by a common virus?

These are all questions that have emerged over the course of ongoing research in our labs. But our researchers’ curiosity brings an important challenge into focus. When a team’s current budget won’t stretch, how do we fund these exciting new ideas as they emerge?

As we look to accelerate the progress of research we need to work out how to turn these curiosities from ‘fundable’ into ‘funded’. And it’s becoming clear that to do this – especially within a timescale that will help deliver benefits to patients as soon as possible – we must find new, innovative sources of funding.

That’s why this week we’ve taken a step into uncharted territory. We’re opening up the funding hopes of three research projects to the power of the crowd. Will they receive the money they need? Only you can decide.

What is crowdfunding?

Whether it’s a band’s latest album, a 3D-printing pen or even a scientist’s next experiment, crowdfunding is fast-becoming a go-to way of getting new ideas off the ground.

Online crowdfunding platforms are popping up across the Web, and there are now an ever-increasing number of projects calling for donations from the public to make them a reality.

Stripping it back to basics, crowdfunding is where a project, idea or venture pitches for small amounts of money from a large number of people, usually online. The people behind the project set a funding target, and set a deadline. If the projects don’t reach their funding targets the team doesn’t receive any money and the project won’t happen.

So how does this relate to how we fund research? A couple of years ago we had a look at the potential for using crowdfunding to pay for research. Back then, we identified a number of challenges, as well as plenty of room to develop the idea – and we’ve been doing just that.

We’re now ready to test the potential to use crowdfunding to raise additional funds for research. And to do it we’ll be using the popular online crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, kicking off our experiment with three very different projects from teams of scientists we already support. They’re experts in their fields, and where necessary the projects have undergone a vigorous peer-review process to ensure they are of the highest quality.

So what are they, and how can you get involved?

Lung lab

Dr Michaela Frye and her team from The University of Cambridge study specialised cells found within certain tissues in the body, known as stem cells. They’re special because they have the potential to develop into all the different cell types that make up that particular tissue, so play a vital role in renewing important parts of the body.

But in some cases this process can go wrong, and some researchers believe that misbehaving stem cells may have a role to play in cancer. Following their discovery of a ‘stem-like’ cell in the lungs, which Michaela says can “develop into multiple lung cells,” her team is now setting its sights on lung cancer.

“We want to grow these stem cells into 3D lung tissue in a bioreactor,” says Ferda, one of Michaela’s research team. They believe that once they have the 3D models of the lungs growing in the lab they will be able to test what happens when lung cancer cells are introduced, and whether the model could be useful for testing new treatments.

“It could be game-changing,” says Ferda. To meet the team and find out more about the project, visit their project page where you can help make this study a reality.

Stopping the spread

“My team has become more curious about cancer’s ability to avoid detection from the immune system,” says Dr Vicky Sanz-Moreno, one of our researchers based at King’s College London.

The team works on melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer. And it’s picking apart the machinery that helps melanoma cells move and spread around the body.

But this recent curiosity around the immune system has led them to ask whether melanoma cells – and perhaps other types of cancer cells – are using the same tools they use to spread around the body to avoid the immune system.

But they need your help to fund what will be a technically challenging project. Meet Vicky and the rest of her team on their project page to see if you want to back their research.

Immunotherapy in action

Around 9 in 10 people are carriers of the Epstein-Barr Virus, or EBV for short. And on the whole, the vast majority of us experience no problems with being infected.

But in some cases the virus can show a darker side. EBV causes an estimated 200,000 cases of cancer across the world each year, and our third team of crowdfunding hopefuls is trying to put a stop to that.

Led by Drs Neil Steven, Graham Taylor and Professor Alan Rickinson from the University of Birmingham, this team is working on a vaccine, which it hopes will be able to treat these EBV-linked cancers by boosting the immune response. And the team members are already some way along the road to their goal, having established an early stage clinical trial of the vaccine they have developed.

But they need your help to set up some advanced technology in the lab that will enable them to accurately read the huge amounts of the genetic data that the trial will generate.

Sound interesting? Head over to their project page to find out more and pledge to back this virus fighting team.

Why aren’t we funding this already?

So why are we doing this? And why can’t we just give these teams more money right now?


The funding the researchers are asking for is in addition to what we already provide

The funding the researchers are asking for is in addition to what we already provide. Research breeds research and, as a project progresses, new ideas emerge. The challenge comes when the money we provided for an initial funding award doesn’t stretch to cover the costs of exploring these new questions. Alternatively, the new questions the researchers want to ask may sit just outside the remit of the money we’ve already given them.

Without a way to quickly inject new funding into scientifically solid ideas, these additional questions could be left hanging. The team would either have to wait for more funding to come along as part of a larger grant, or even laboriously apply for an entirely new grant – something that may take time.

If we truly want to accelerate the progress of this research then we need to be able to offer injections of funding that are necessary to get these projects up and running as soon as possible.

And we believe crowdfunding may be one of these alternatives, which is why we are testing it out now.

The time is now (for these projects)

Without your support these projects won’t happen now. The targets are fixed, and if the projects don’t reach their funding targets your money is returned, and the researchers will have to look for alternatives to fund the next steps in their research.

But that’s the beauty of crowdfunding, galvanising a group of people with a shared goal to make something happen, right now. We want this research to happen. Do you?


Support our scientists

And if you can’t spare any money you can still support our scientists by sharing this post and their projects with your friends, family and on the usual social networks.

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