Image from research strategy 2014 document

Answer? All three are involved in innovative projects we’ve just funded in the first round of our new Pioneer Award scheme, to develop the cancer treatments of tomorrow.

Alert readers will remember the Pioneer Award from its launch back in July. To quickly recap, it’s a ‘Dragon’s Den’-like way of funding research that hands out up to £200,000 to people with revolutionary ideas that have the potential to be game-changing for cancer research.

Last month, our Pioneer Award committee met for the first time to hear pitches from a range of researchers and scientists. And here are the exciting new projects they decided to fund.

Project 1: Using palladium to dampen the side-effects of experimental brain tumour chemotherapy

Dr Paul Brennan, Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre

Paul Brennan

Dr Paul Brennan

Palladium – a rare metal discovered in 1803 – is usually found in precious jewellery.

But it also has a hidden ability: it can convert seemingly harmless chemicals into powerful chemotherapy drugs.

And because of this, we’ve given Dr Paul Brennan Pioneer Award funding for a remarkable idea. He thinks this rare metal could answer one of the toughest problems in cancer treatment: stopping a common type of brain tumour (glioblastoma) from growing back after surgery.

Paul’s work builds on current treatments that implant drug delivery platforms in the brain right after surgery. But while these implants can release chemotherapy directly at the site of the tumour, they have lots of early side effects, and can quickly wear off, allowing the tumour to grow back.

Enter palladium.

Paul thinks palladium could be used to convert an inactive anti-cancer drug into an active cancer-killing drug inside the brain. This idea sprang from other recent research at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre, showing that palladium could reduce the side-effects of toxic chemotherapy drugs.

Paul will use his Pioneer Award funding to develop and test new drugs that could be used in the brain with this technology. If it works, Paul thinks palladium could be used as an implant inside the brain.

And if it lives up to its potential, this could revolutionise the way brain tumours are treated, possibly providing long-term protection from tumour re-growth, and improving patient survival.

This is especially important since – in our recent research strategy – we identified brain tumours as an area we want to prioritise over the next five years.

Project 2: Using bacteria to find new cancer drugs

Dr Gavin Garland, University of Cambridge

Gavin Garland

Dr Gavin Garland

The term ‘survival’ has two meanings for Gavin Garland.

First, Gavin is a cancer survivor, and knows first-hand what it’s like to put his hope in treatments developed by scientists. Diagnosed with lymphoma as a teenager, Gavin spent time in a children’s cancer ward. Although Gavin received treatment that helped him to survive, he was surrounded by other children, some of whom didn’t.

But it also makes him think of Charles Darwin’s principle, ‘survival of the fittest’, where characteristics that help living things to survive and reproduce will spread in a population.

And Gavin – who is now a cancer researcher at the University of Cambridge – predicts that if he grows bacteria, cancer cells and healthy cells together under the right conditions, bacteria might start to produce a chemical that selectively kills cancer cells without affecting healthy cells.

This idea has real potential: the type of bacteria Gavin will use – known as E. coli – is highly adaptable under laboratory conditions.

Gavin’s going to use his Pioneer Award funding to test his prediction. He’ll carefully manipulate conditions, in search of those under which he predicts bacteria will produce a chemical that selectively targets cancer cells.

Supposing he manages this, he’ll test the new chemical to see how effective it is, and identify it using standard analysis techniques. If he’s right, he could be taking the first steps towards discovering a completely new form of cancer drug.

Project 3: Enlisting salmonella to deploy a cancer weapon right at the heart of a tumour

Professor Paul Dyson, Swansea University

Paul Dyson

Professor Paul Dyson

Swansea University’s Professor Paul Dyson has previously developed a pesticide-free weapon against crop-damaging insects, but has now turned his expertise towards beating cancer. The panel were really impressed with his idea for a new way to deploy a powerful anti-cancer weapon at the heart of a tumour – a technology called RNAi.

RNAi is already useful laboratory technology, allowing researchers to switch genes on and off at will. But more than a decade of attempts to use RNAi to benefit patients has yielded little in the way of success. In particular, trying to develop ways to turn this technology against cancer has left scientists scratching their heads.

Paul thinks that harmless versions of the bacteria Salmonella could be deployed to unleash the RNAi weapon against cancerous tumours without damaging healthy cells. He’s based his idea on two observations: firstly salmonella can be modified to carry RNAi (and Paul’s already shown that it works to kill individual cancer cells in the lab), and secondly, salmonella preferentially invades and multiplies in solid tumours. Putting these two observations together could mean a ground-breaking new strategy to treat cancer could be around the corner.

Not only that, but Paul’s idea could potentially attack tumours from two angles: releasing RNAi molecules that kill tumours directly, and others that cut off their ability to become resistant to chemotherapy drugs. In other words, his idea could potentially lead to both a brand new treatment, and make current cancer treatments much more effective.

All three of these ideas may sound a bit farfetched, but that’s exactly the point. We want to fund new innovative ideas outside of the mainstream. We’re really excited to see how our first Pioneer Award projects turn out, and we’re looking forward to some equally visionary ideas in the next round of funding.

Emma Hodgson is a graduate trainee at Cancer Research UK

  • Applications are welcomed to the Pioneer Award from any scientist, regardless of discipline, career stage or track record. We’re looking for everyone’s brilliant ideas, so if you’d like to submit yours then visit our website.