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Grand Challenge: The beginning of a global movement against cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

14 June 2017

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In October 2015, we launched a completely new and different type of funding scheme – Grand Challenge – with the aim of bringing together the world’s greatest scientific minds to catalyse a revolution in how we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. Here we celebrate our four exceptional teams that, 18 months later, have been awarded a total of more than £70 million in the first round of the initiative. 

“Grand Challenge was set up to stimulate and inspire teams around the world to try and tackle some of the most persistent, tenacious problems that face the entire cancer community” explains Dr Rick Klausner, Former Director of the US National Cancer Institute, and Chair of the CRUK Grand Challenge Advisory Panel.

“And the response was a triumph” recalls Rick. Applications came in from 57 teams across 25 countries and the panel had the unenviable task of whittling this down to a shortlist of nine. “These were some of the most exciting proposals we’d ever seen, and it left us with a problem – we had to find ways to fund more than one.”

We looked at how we could bring together a package of funding to do this, by involving the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) and with the support of a generous philanthropist from the US who came on board as well. “They shared our excitement about the overwhelming calibre and potential of these new collaborations”, says Rick. Thanks to these two partnerships, we have been able to fund four teams this year, investing more than £70 million.

Supporting big ideas

One of the great successes was to see proposals that simply could not have happened otherwise. The size of the Grand Challenge awards – they are the largest cancer research grants in the world – was certainly a key enabling factor for teams. “It’s a privilege being able to explore these questions in this way,” says Professor Sir Mike Stratton from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, who is leading a team tackling the mutational signatures challenge.

These are almost fantasy ideas in our area of science. Things we might conceive of that we would love to do, but weren’t sure we’d ever actually have the means to do because of the sheer scale.

Dr Jelle Wesseling, from the Netherlands Cancer Institute, is leading a team to differentiate potentially lethal from non-lethal ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). “This requires a truly international endeavour,” he says. “We need well annotated, large sample series with adequate follow-up. Most DCIS studies are small and underpowered and, as a result, virtually nothing is known about DCIS biology.”

Building a global multidisciplinary community

It’s not the just the scale that makes Grand Challenge unique. The scheme is open to anyone internationally to apply, from any discipline, including commercial partners. And we were delighted to see an application led by chemist Dr Josephine Bunch from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), including both academic and industry co-investigators. She heard about Grand Challenge on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and her interest was piqued by the challenge of developing a 3D map of a tumour. “I was excited to hear the scale of ambition,” she recalls. “I heard the problem and knew straight away that the techniques we’ve been pioneering at NPL could make a massive difference.”

“In Grand Challenge we are looking for something new,” says Advisory Panel member Professor Sir David Lane, “and I loved that Josephine’s team is truly multidisciplinary. It’s coming from a different sphere, where the central tenet is to create something and share it with everybody.”

Josephine’s team is one of two we’re funding to tackle the challenge of building a 3D map of cancer, a challenge set in the context of more than a decade’s research that has vastly improved understanding of tumour heterogeneity. This has led to the widely held belief that tumours must not be thought of as individual cells but as a tissue with different components. “The idea of the 3D map challenge was to dissect that tissue and understand its structure,” explains Professor Ed Harlow, Professor of Cancer Biology at Harvard.

We asked teams to rise to this challenge and they’ve done it. We have no idea what we’ll learn, but we’ve got to jump in.

—Ed Harlow

Perspective from a shortlisted team

Professor Alan Rickinson assembled an impressive team of PIs from all corners of the globe to tackle the EBV challenge, making it to the shortlist stage. He says the challenge raised their sights as to what might be possible: “We were delighted to see EBV being recognised as a major global health problem by CRUK setting the Grand Challenge of eradicating EBV cancers from the world,” Alan recalls. Developing better treatments for EBV-related cancers had been the goal of their respective groups and Grand Challenge gave them the chance to collaborate internationally to combine existing strategies, but also to recruit new groups from outside the EBV field to the cause, he explains.

After reaching the shortlist, the team was awarded £30k seed funding which they used to organise a three-day meeting for all collaborators. It engendered a real spirit of shared endeavour, Alan recalls: “The most valuable part of the whole process was having personal contact with talented individuals from different backgrounds. If I had any advice for new people applying, I would say get together in person. Use the seed funding for that purpose. Scientific collaborations are built on trust, and you only do that by talking science together.”

While the team was naturally disappointed not to have been funded in full, they are excited by the new collaborations and ideas they’ve developed: “The most exciting thing was being liberated from your own silo” says Alan. “It’s like being at 30,000 feet on your way to a meeting, but usually when you hit the ground you’re back to reality and the detail again. For me, Grand Challenge was like constantly being at 30,000 feet. You’re allowed to dream of what could happen if you put these people together. It’s been very worthwhile, because good things will happen now.”

A flexible approach

The flexible nature of Grand Challenge funding is hugely important for tackling challenges of this scale, and this is certainly true for the second 3D tumour map team, led by Professor Greg Hannon from the CRUK Cambridge Institute. His team will be developing entirely new technologies and pushing the capability of existing ones. At this point it’s impossible to know which will be the frontrunners and how the team will need to spend funds towards the latter stages of the grant. “We’ve structured our project a little differently from others,” explains Greg. “It’s a big project, and you can’t predict its course over the next six or seven years, so we’ve built in a year where we ramp up, and we hire the right people, which is probably the most important determinant of success. Then we’ll wait until we get further down the line to decide how to scale up.”

Our funded teams are now embarking on the first of five, or more, years of making their Grand Challenge vision a reality. In February 2017, we brought them together in London, where they had the chance to share their plans, exchange knowledge and discuss synergies and opportunities for collaboration.

“We thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other teams at the launch and hearing about their plans,” says Josephine. “We have started thinking about how we could work with the other teams and have already had some early conversations to start planning some joint work.”

“These awards aim to stimulate people to think about problems differently, get together, discuss ideas and, as teams, be able to achieve more than the sum of their individual parts,” says Rick. “This is just the beginning. We want this to be the start of a global approach, a unique community, which will collectively redefine the way we think about cancer.”

We’re looking for the next world-leading teams to tackle the latest Grand Challenges. Teams can be led from the UK or overseas. 

Find everything you need to apply at


Integrating the patient experience

Patients and people affected by cancer have been involved in Grand Challenge since the moment it began. From feeding into what the research challenges would be back in 2015, to co-writing funding guidelines, reviewing research applications, and interviewing teams on their plans to involve people affected by cancer.

For the first time, CRUK required applicants to include patient representatives as part of their team. “Our patient advocates influenced ideas of how ultimately we might want to use the technology; this broadened out the applications beyond our original thinking,” recalls Professor Greg Hannon.

Patient representatives in all teams attended key meetings and have been part of ongoing conversations. “I see that continuing throughout the project,” says Professor Sir Mike Stratton. “It wasn’t a one-off event or series of events, it’s a true collaboration. They challenged us around the language we use, and what patients’ expectations and hopes are.”

In addition to patient advocates being an integral part of each team, CRUK also formed a Grand Challenge Patient Panel to review all applications and feed in to final award decisions. Peter Rainey, who chairs this Patient Panel, says “Only time will tell what Grand Challenge delivers, but great strides have been made in working collaboratively, thinking creatively and increasing the level of ambition among the research community. Awareness of the role that can be played by individuals affected by cancer in the research process has been significantly raised.”