We’d like to introduce our latest Pioneer Award winners. These researchers are now putting their theories to the test thanks to our ‘Dragon’s Den-style’ funding scheme, where researchers pitch their ideas to a panel of scientists.

Harnessing the power of the Zika virus – Dr Harry Bulstrode

Dr Harry Bulstrode

Glioblastoma is the most common type of brain tumour. It’s also the hardest to treat. One of the reasons for this is that drugs used to treat the disease can’t get easily get into the brain.

At the University of Cambridge, Dr Harry Bulstrode is investigating whether the Zika virus, which, unlike other viruses, is able to move from the blood into the brain without damaging normal brain tissue, could be used to target cancer stem cells in mice.

Infection with the Zika virus during pregnancy can cause severe disability in babies by attacking specialised cells called stem cells in the developing brain. But the virus is generally harmless in adults, typically only causing mild symptoms from which people usually recover. Glioblastomas contain rapidly dividing cancer stem cells, which resemble those in the developing brain, and Bulstrode believes that the Zika virus may be able to attack these cancer cells too.

“We hope to show that the Zika virus can slow down brain tumour growth in tests in the lab,” he says. “If we can learn lessons from Zika’s ability to get into the brain and target brain stem cells but leave other cells alone, we could be holding the key to future treatments.”


Finding cancers’ paper trail – Dr Jem Rashbass

Dr Jem Rashbass Credit: Simon Way

Dr Jem Rashbass, from Health Data Insight, is trying to find a paper trail for cancer, using prescription history.

Rashbass hopes to find patterns of prescriptions that may precede a cancer diagnosis.

Working together with Public Health England and the NHS Business Service Authority, they have a colossal dataset, allowing them to look at 66 million prescriptions per month.

Only half of patients who go on to be diagnosed with cancer will have a ‘red flag’ symptom, says Rashbass. “We want to help GPs identify those patients that have cancer, to help them get diagnosed earlier.”

Catching the highwayman – Dr Oliver Harriman and Dr Irwin Zaid

When cancer cells spread they use the blood vessels as a ‘highway’ to the rest of the body. Dr Harriman and Dr Zaid, based at biotechnology company Cytosight, want to capture these tumour cells in the blood to get a ‘snapshot’ of cancer.

Dr Oliver Harriman and Dr Irwin Zaid

There’s a lot of excitement around what scientists can learn from patient blood samples. But according to Harriman, there is demand for new approaches to collect the cells.

“These circulating cancer cells are very rare, and hard to spot alongside all the other cells in the blood,” he says.

“At the moment, scientists rely on finding cancer cells by size, for example by pushing the blood through filters, or by their surface proteins which involves sticking molecules to them. Both of these techniques can damage the cells, and we lose valuable information.”

“We want to find the cancer cells based on the way they look, without tampering with them.”

By updating these methods, the team hopes to uncover more about different cancers as they spread.

Improving the gold standard – Dr George Gordon and Dr Sarah Bohndiek

Dr Sarah Bohndiek and Dr George Gordon

Looking for cancer cells in tissue samples using a microscope is the gold standard of cancer diagnosis. This can also help doctors find out more about a patient’s cancer and how best to treat it.

But getting a sample of the tumour from the patient to the lab takes time, and a single tissue sample may not give doctors the full story about that tumour. In Cambridge, Dr George Gordon and Dr Sarah Bohndiek want to refine how this is done, to improve the process for patients and doctors.

They are testing if a specialised imaging technique could be adapted to gather more information from a single sample. They hope this technique will also help speed up the process, potentially leading to quicker decisions around treatment.

If this works, they then plan to combine the approach with artificial intelligence to help doctors see where a tumour ends and healthy tissue begins in real-time, potentially making surgery more precise.


  • These projects are examples of those funded by our Pioneer Award. Applications are welcomed to the Pioneer Award scheme from any scientists, regardless of discipline, career stage or track record.
  • You can read about our previous Pioneer Awards, funded in November 2016, July 2016, March 2016 and November 2015 in the links provided.
  • If you’re a researcher you can find out more about this award on our website.