Last year we launched our most ambitious funding scheme ever: Grand Challenge. It was a call to arms for the global research community to answer some of the biggest questions in cancer research that hold the potential to transform our approaches to preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer.
Here members of the advisory panel – Professors Brian Druker, Ed Harlow and Suzanne Cory – provide insight into the qualities and approaches that helped make a successful application.
We received applications from 57 teams, comprising scientists from 25 countries around the world, who rose to the challenge and submitted ideas that aimed to unlock new thinking and transcend boundaries in how we tackle cancer.
Our panel reviewed the applications, shortlisting nine teams, each of which received seed-funding of up to £30,000 to develop their idea further.
But what can we learn from our Grand Challenge applications about what it takes to build an integrated team of researchers from different disciplines?
Where to start?
The diverse nature of the Grand Challenge questions meant that applications covered a wide range of scientific approaches to answering the seven challenges. However, a couple of qualities were common across successful applications: attacking the problem through sheer scale of approach, or utilising novel techniques.
Teams that addressed the challenges by proposing to scale up existing approaches highlighted the value that could be derived from drawing together greater resource in terms of samples, data and people. These applicants clearly showed how the Grand Challenge funding would deliver a result greater than the sum of its parts.
Ed Harlow describes the ambition that the panel were looking for:
The teams had to be willing to move beyond the next logical step. They needed to be thinking about major leaps forward that would really open up the field and allow substantial progress.
The panel were impressed when teams proposed novel ways to tackle challenges. “Some of the teams focused on new technologies: they understood that to answer the question we need to develop entirely novel technologies, and had at least a glimmer of an idea about how to go about developing them,” says Ed.
Forming an international, interdisciplinary consortium of eminent researchers from across the globe isn’t simple. Successful teams all recognised these boundaries – geographical and other – that they would have to overcome and addressed them within their application.
Suzanne Cory explains that having a shared vision is fundamental. “The teams needed to present a really convincing case that they will act as a fully integrated programme rather than as a series of parallel, related, but independent, projects.” Forming a consortium isn’t achieved by following a formula – the process should be tailored to meet the unique needs of what the team is trying to achieve, accounting for locations, individuals and milestones that need to be met.
“Some teams proposed an advisory panel to help steer the programme”, Ed explains – an approach useful in supplementing knowledge and expertise within the teams. “Some groups realised that further down the line they would benefit from involving individuals who would push them to think about things in new ways”. This demonstrated to the panel that these teams anticipated that further questions may arise and were prepared to seek the right guidance when this occurred.
Further markers of success
Our Grand Challenge set the ambition that teams should form new collaborations to drive progress in innovative ways. Ed says the panel was pleased to see many of the teams recognised this vital element. “We were impressed with the number of groups who had reached outside their local environment or their own discipline to involve individuals who might come at the question from a completely different angle.”
Brian Druker explains: “The successful teams clearly embraced the collaborative nature of these Challenges and recognised that the purpose was to solve a problem. Accordingly, they reached out to the best people around the world, whether in academia or industry, and presented clearly articulated plans for how they would build upon each other’s strengths.”
Another recurring feature of the shortlisted teams was that they kept the ultimate goal of the challenges – improving survival for patients – at the forefront of their applications. Brian believes that the inclusion of patient advocates in the applications helped keep the teams focused and motivated:
As scientists, we often get bogged down in details and occasionally blame administrative hurdles for our lack of progress. Patient advocates remind us why our work is so important and compel us to break through these barriers.
When we launched our Grand Challenge, we had the bold ambition of galvanising a revolution in how we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. A year on, we are impressed to see how the global community has responded to our call and are thrilled to have shortlisted nine exemplary teams. Whether they go on to secure the Grand Challenge Award or continue to hone their programme ideas and work with us in other ways, we look forward to seeing how the collective expertise drawn together by Grand Challenge will take us boldly in new directions reaching new frontiers in cancer research.
In this article
Research Professor, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia
Director of Knight Cancer Institute, Oregon Health and Science University, Oregon, USA
Professor of Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts, USA
This story is part of Pioneering Research: our annual research publication for 2015/16.