There was excitement in the air as 10 of the world’s leading scientists deliberated on their decision. After months of hard work and sleepless nights, they were selecting the first winners of our Grand Challenge awards.

“We were almost pinching ourselves when we read the winning teams’ applications”, explains Dr Rick Klausner, chair of the Grand Challenge Advisory Board.

“They were among the most exciting I’ve ever read, and I’ve been reading and reviewing funding applications for almost 40 years!”

Originally, the plan was to fund 1 team. But the quality of the shortlisted teams led the panel to recommend we fund 4, which we’re announcing today.

Together, they will receive more than £70 million over the next 5 years as they attempt to answer 3 of the toughest questions on how to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

According to Klausner, one of the reasons these teams stood out was their willingness to work together, combining the expertise of scientists from different disciplines in each team.

“We’re now at a point in cancer research where we realise that to solve the remaining problems, scientists from different disciplines have to come together,” he says.

“Chemists, biologists, physicists, computer programmers, data analysers, people working in labs and people in the clinic must all join forces.

“Other funding schemes recognise this, and encourage scientists to collaborate. But the Grand Challenge is unique in that it doesn’t just encourage scientists to form such alliances, it requires them to.

“These 4 winning teams have more than met that requirement. They have brought together experts from around the world, and from different scientific disciplines, to solve some of the biggest problems we face in cancer research.

“Problems that if solved, will dramatically change our approach to the disease, and our ability to study, prevent, diagnose and treat it.”

Years in the making

These awards are like nothing we’ve ever funded before. So getting it right has been a long journey.

Here’s how we reached today’s decision:

The winning teams

Over the coming months we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the 4 winning teams’ research. But for now, here’s a brief overview of what they plan to do with their Grand Challenge funding.

Dr Josephine Bunch – Develop a ‘Google Earth’ for tumours to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment

Dr Josephine Bunch

Dr Josephine Bunch

In the same way cartographers make maps of cities, countries and the world to help people get around, scientists use microscopes, gene-sequencing technology and a host of other techniques to build maps of tumours. The goal is to better understand the inner workings of tumours, in the hope this will lead to new ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

But despite significant advances in technology and our understanding of cancer, our tumour maps remain incomplete.

Through their Grand Challenge project, Dr Josephine Bunch, from the National Physical Laboratory in London and her team of UK and US-based scientists, want to change this. Using their expertise they aim to find a way to fully map different tumours in unprecedented detail. And they aim to ensure that all labs and hospitals around the world will be able to use their technology to do the same.

The team will do this using specialised new technology called mass spectrometry imaging, which measures all the molecules inside tissues and cells to build a complete picture of that tumour.

Amazingly, Bunch’s team, which includes the inventors of many of the machines they’ll use in their work, are the first in the world to combine all these technologies.

And they will map every detail of a series of tumours, zooming in from the whole tumour right down to the individual fats and molecules inside cells (metabolites), as well as studying the cells and molecules around the tumour.

They hope that by creating such detailed pictures of the ‘beating heart’ of these tumours they will improve our understanding of all cancers, leading to new and better ways to diagnose and treat them.

To begin with the team will study individual breast, bowel, pancreatic and brain tumours. They chose these cancers because they want to show that their new technology can be used to map different tumours from different parts of the body that each hold their own unique challenges.

But perhaps, more importantly, this selection is based where the team believe their work could make the biggest difference to patients, fastest.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton – Discovering the causes of cancer by studying DNA ‘fingerprints’

Professor Sir Mike Stratton

Professor Sir Mike Stratton

The environment we’re exposed to and some of the things we choose to do, like smoking and drinking alcohol, can increase our risk of cancer by damaging our cells’ DNA. This damage occurs in distinctive patterns – known as mutational ‘fingerprints’ – which are unique to the cause of that damage.

Right now, scientists have found around 50 of these ‘fingerprints’ that are linked to cancer. But they only know what causes around half of them.

Professor Sir Mike Stratton from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, and his team of scientists from the UK, France and the US, together with collaborators from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), want to fill in the missing gaps.

Their Grand Challenge project aims to work backwards from those ‘fingerprints’ with an unknown cause to reveal the biology behind them. And ultimately find out what caused them.

It’s a project on an epic scale that spans 5 continents.

The team will study the ‘fingerprints’ in 5,000 pancreatic, kidney, oesophageal and bowel cancer samples, which come from countries that have different levels of these cancers.

They’ll also collect information about the habits, lifestyles and environments of the people from whom the samples originate, searching for clues to what the causes might be, and why some cancers are more common in some parts of the world than others.

This research could dramatically improve our understanding of what causes certain cancers and lead to better information for people on how to reduce their risk of developing these diseases.

Professor Greg Hannon – Using computerised 3D tumours and virtual reality to better understand cancer

Professor Greg Hannon

Professor Greg Hannon

To fully understand cancer, scientists need to know everything about a tumour – what types of cells are in it, how many there are and where they are located in the tumour.

But getting such a precise picture of tumours is extremely difficult to do. So difficult that it’s not been done before.

Professor Greg Hannon, based at our Cambridge Institute, and his team of scientists, computer experts and virtual reality developers from the UK, Canada, Switzerland, the US and Ireland want to change this.

Their Grand Challenge project, which will attempt to tackle the same challenge as Bunch’s team, aims to build computerised 3D tumours from real samples that can be studied using virtual reality and show every single different type of cell in the tumour.

Starting with breast cancer, they aim to gather thousands of bits of information about every cell – from cancer cells to immune cells – to find out which cells are neighbours, how they interact with each other, and how they all work together to help tumours survive and grow.

This will involve building specialised microscopes from scratch, as well as collecting genetic data for each of the millions of cells that can be found inside a tumour.

They will then take the vast amounts of data they collect and use this information to build a computerised 3D version that can be studied using virtual reality, allowing scientists to immerse themselves in a tumour and study patterns within it that can’t be seen by simply looking down a microscope or at charts of gene data.

By developing this entirely new way to study cancer, this team hopes to change how cancer is diagnosed, treated and managed.

Dr Jelle Wesseling – Finding ways to spare women unnecessary treatment

Dr Jelle Wesseling

Dr Jelle Wesseling

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is a condition that sometimes develops into breast cancer.

But right now, doctors can’t tell whether women with DCIS will go on to develop breast cancer or not. This means that, unfortunately, some women with DCIS undergo hospital visits, surgery and even chemotherapy and radiotherapy that they don’t need.

Through their Grand Challenge project, Dr Jelle Wesseling, based at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, and his team of scientists from the UK, the Netherlands and the US want to change this, and stop women getting unnecessary treatment.

To achieve this, Wesseling’s team will study tissue samples taken from women with DCIS during surgery. They will look at these samples in great detail and gather clinical information about these women, recording whether their DCIS came back, if they later developed breast cancer, and if so, whether it spread.

The team will then combine all of this information to search for clues in the DNA of women who had DCIS to see if they can predict how likely they were to develop breast cancer later on.

By finding ways to distinguish women with DCIS who have a low or high risk of developing cancer, this project has the potential to spare thousands of women unnecessary treatment, while making sure those who need it, get it.

The future looks bright

Together, these 4 teams want to bring about a revolution in how we think about, prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. And it’s an ambition on a global scale.

“Cancer is a complex and often brutal disease,” says Klausner.

“Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge awards are helping us change the way we tackle it – bringing together different disciplines, ideas, and people on a global scale.

“These unique teams have done that in a truly remarkable way. I can’t wait to see what their research brings and the impact it will have around the world.”