Cancer Research UK announces that four international teams are the first recipients of its global £100m Grand Challenge competition, which aims to overcome the biggest challenges facing cancer researchers in a global effort to beat cancer sooner.

This new Cancer Research UK initiative has been overseen by a panel of world-leading researchers, chaired by Dr Rick Klausner, former director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

“We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress. We’re incredibly excited to be able to support these exceptional teams as they help us achieve our ambition.” – Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK

The winning projects are set to revolutionise our understanding of cancer, and enable us to better prevent, diagnose and treat the disease in the future. The international, multidisciplinary teams will be using unparalleled approaches to help develop pioneering solutions to some of cancer’s major challenges.

The four winning teams will:

  • Study cancer samples from five continents to understand the DNA damage associated with different cancers, to understand what causes them and if they can be prevented. The project will be led by Professor Sir Mike Stratton at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, with collaborators from France, the USA and UK.
  • Distinguish between those women with DCIS (a condition that can develop into breast cancer) who need treatment and those who don’t, to reduce overtreatment of the condition. This project will be led by Dr Jelle Wesseling at the Netherlands Cancer Institute with collaborators from the USA, UK and Netherlands.
  • Develop a way to combine new and existing technologies to create virtual representations of tumours, and a global database that catalogues their genetic make-up and metabolism, which could lead to new ways to diagnose and treat the disease. This project will be led by Dr Josephine Bunch at the National Physical Laboratory, London, with collaborators from the USA and multiple UK research centres.
  • Create a virtual reality 3D tumour map which will allow scientists and doctors to examine – for the first time and in unprecedented detail – the cellular and molecular make-up of a patient’s entire tumour to improve diagnosis and treatment for the disease. This project will be led by Professor Greg Hannon at the University of Cambridge, with collaborators from Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, the USA and UK.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cancer Research UK set up the Grand Challenge awards to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer. We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress. We’re incredibly excited to be able to support these exceptional teams as they help us achieve our ambition.

“Cancer is a global problem, and these projects are part of the global solution. Together, we will redefine cancer – turning it from a disease that so many people die from, to one that many people can live with. We will reduce the number of people worldwide affected by cancer and achieve our goal of beating cancer sooner.”

Cancer Research UK set up Grand Challenge in 2015 and committed up to £100m to this new approach to help increase the pace of research.

To help decide the specific challenges that could transform progress against cancer, Cancer Research UK brought together some of the brightest minds and passionate voices in cancer research from across the world.

These included cancer researchers, doctors, engineers, physicists, behavioural scientists, epidemiologists, technologists and patients.

This process helped identify the big, intractable issues in cancer research, before the advisory panel of international experts reviewed and distilled them down into concrete, manageable challenges.

Seven grand challenges were then announced, each of which identified some of the greatest barriers preventing progress in cancer research.

The international research community were asked to form multidisciplinary teams and submit proposals to answer the challenges.

In February 2016, high quality applications were submitted from more than 200 institutes, spanning 25 countries, uniting more than 400 world-class research groups.

Originally, the plan was for Grand Challenge to fund one new team every year for five years, with each team receiving up to £20m over five years for their research. But, the exceptional quality of the teams and their submissions meant that there were several proposals the panel were felt to be too important not to fund.

Cancer Research UK has now secured a partnership with the Dutch Cancer Society and an anonymous overseas donor to enable a total of four proposals to be funded.

As a result, the commitments in the first round of Grand Challenge funding will now be up to £71m.

Phase two of Grand Challenge, when Cancer Research UK plans to issue a set of revised challenges, will launch this summer.

Dr Rick Klausner, chair of the Grand Challenge advisory panel and former director of the National Cancer Institute, said: “When we began the Grand Challenge we sought scientific adventurers – people willing to come together in new ways, to think differently, and bring novel approaches to answer the big questions in cancer. These unique teams have done just that.

“Cancer is a complex, and often brutal disease. Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge is helping us change the way we to tackle it – bringing together different disciplines, ideas, and people on a global scale. We’ve got our sights set on the horizon of discovery, and I’m confident these Grand Challenge teams will lead to life-changing results.”


The panel includes Professor Sir Adrian Bird, Professor Suzanne Cory, Professor Dame Sally Davies, Professor Ed Harlow, Professor Tyler Jacks, Dr Rick Klausner, Professor Sir David Lane, Dr Christopher Wild and Dr Brian Druker.

The seven challenges were to:

  1. Develop vaccines to prevent non-viral cancers
  2. Eradicate EBV-induced cancers from the world
  3. Discover how unusual patterns of mutation are induced by different cancer-causing events
  4. Distinguish between lethal cancers that need treating, and non-lethal cancers that don’t
  5. Find a way of mapping tumours at the molecular and cellular level
  6. Develop innovative approaches to target the cancer super-controller MYC
  7. Deliver biologically active macromolecules to any and all cells in the body

Extra funding for this first phase has come from partnering with the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) which is half funding the team led by Dr Jelle Wesseling and an anonymous donor who is funding the team led by Dr Josephine Bunch’s project.

More information about the teams

New ways to prevent cancer?: linking mutational signatures back to the events that caused them (Grand Challenge 3) 

Lead investigator: Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK

Funding = Up to £20 million


  • Dr Ludmil B. Alexandrov, Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA
  • Professor Allan Balmain, UCSF, USA
  • Dr Paul Brennan, IARC, France
  • Dr Peter Campbell, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK
  • Professor David Phillips, King’s College London, UK
  • Mimi McCord , Patient Advocate
  • Maggie Blanks, Patient Advocate

Things in our environment and behaviours like smoking and drinking alcohol, can cause cancer by damaging our cells’ DNA, leaving a distinctive pattern known as a ‘mutational fingerprint’. But right now, scientists don’t know everything that causes them.

Professor Mike Stratton and his team of scientists from the UK, France and the US, together with collaborators from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, want to fill in the missing gaps.

In a project of epic scale that spans 5 continents and 5,000 patient samples, Stratton’s team want to build a much deeper understanding of DNA damage – what causes it and how it leads to cancer. They want to identify as yet unknown causes of cancer, determine which ones are due to environmental exposures and lifestyle behaviours, and figure out exactly how they cause cancer.

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

When is cancer not really cancer? (Grand Challenge 4)

Lead investigator: Dr Jelle Wesseling, Netherlands Cancer Institute, The Netherlands

Co-funded with the Dutch Cancer Society = up to £15 million


  • Dr Phillip Andrew Futreal, University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, USA
  • Professor Jos Jonkers, Netherlands Cancer Institute, The Netherlands
  • Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK
  • Professor Alastair Mark Thompson, University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, USA
  • Dr Daniel Rea, The University of Birmingham, UK
  • Dr Esther Lips, Netherlands Cancer Institute, The Netherlands
  • Maggie Wilcox, Patient Advocate
  • Ellen Verschuur, Patient Advocate
  • Marja van Oirsouw, Patient Advocate
  • Hilary Stobart, Patient Advocate
  • Deborah Collyar, Patient Advocate
  • Donna Pinto, Patient Advocate

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

But right now, doctors can’t tell whether women with DCIS will go on to develop breast cancer, meaning some women with DCIS undergo unnecessary treatment.

Dr Jelle Wesseling and his team of scientists from the UK, Netherlands and the US want to change this.

They will study tissue samples taken from women with DCIS during surgery and study their characteristics in great detail. Alongside this, they will 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 and use mathematical modelling to search for clues (biomarkers) in the DNA of women who have had DCIS that could indicate how likely they are to develop breast cancer later on.

By identifying biomarkers that can distinguish between DCIS patients with a low and high risk of developing cancer, this project has the potential to reduce over-treatment of DCIS patients while ensuring those who need treatment get it.

Charting unknown territory: mapping what we don’t know about a tumour (Grand Challenge 5)

Lead investigator: Dr Josephine Bunch, National Physical Laboratory, UK

Funding = up to £16 million


  • Dr Richard Goodwin, AstraZeneca, UK
  • Dr Simon Barry, AstraZeneca, UK
  • Professor Ian Gilmore, National Physical Laboratory, UK
  • Dr George Poulogiannis, The Institute of Cancer Research, UK
  • Professor Owen J Sansom, Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, UK
  • Professor Zoltan Takats, Imperial College London, UK
  • Dr Mariia Yuneva, The Francis Crick Institute, UK
  • Professor John Marshall, Barts Cancer Institute, UK
  • Professor Kevin Brindle, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK
  • Harry Hall, Patient Advocate
  • Kelly Gleason, Patient Advocate

Through their Grand Challenge project, Dr Josephine Bunch, from the National Physical Laboratory, and her team of UK- and US-based chemists, physicists and biologists want to use their expertise to develop a reproducible, standardised way to fully map tumours in unprecedented detail.

The team will use a variety of new mass spectrometry imaging techniques and instruments they’ve developed to study individual tumours in exceptional detail.

From the whole tumour right down to the individual fats and proteins in cells (the metabolites), to the tumour microenvironment, they will map and visualise every bit of these tumours to create faithful 3D representations of them.

The team’s novel approach to studying and mapping the entire molecular make-up of tumours could lead to the development of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer. It could also inform and improve the testing of existing treatments and potentially improve them.

Building a virtual reality interactive map of breast cancer (Grand Challenge 5)

Lead investigator: Professor Greg Hannon, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK

Funding = up to £20 million


  • Professor Johanna Joyce, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Switzerland
  • Professor Samuel Aparicio, BC Cancer Agency, Canada
  • Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK
  • Professor Edward S. Boyden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
  • Professor Carlos Caldas, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK
  • Owen Harris, DEEP VR, Ireland
  • Professor Simon Tavaré, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK
  • Dr Nicholas Walton, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK
  • Dr Bernd Bodenmiller, University of Zurich, Switzerland
  • Professor Xiaowei Zhuang, Harvard University
  • Dr Dario Bressan, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, UK
  • Elaine Chapman, Patient Advocate
  • Lynn Dundas, Patient Advocate

Professor Greg Hannon and his team of scientists, computer scientists and virtual reality experts from England, Canada, Switzerland and the US aim to create an incredibly detailed picture of everything going on inside a tumour.

Their Grand Challenge project aims to build a 3D tumour that can be studied using virtual reality and shows every different type of cell in the tumour.

They aim to gather thousands of bits of information about every cell in a tumour to find out what cells are next to each other, how they interact with and influence each other, and how they all work together to help tumours survive and grow.

They will then take all this information and use it to construct a 3D version that can be studied using virtual reality, allowing scientists to immerse themselves in a tumour and study patterns and characteristics within it in ways that aren’t possible in 2D.

By developing such an entirely new way to study cancer, this team hope to change how the disease is diagnosed, treated and managed.