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How much does research cost?

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

17 March 2020

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Two scientists studying a petri dish in a lab

We’re proud that 82p of every pound donated to Cancer Research UK is spent on beating the disease. But what does that really mean? Samantha Gharial takes a look at some of the costs involved in our life-saving work to raise awareness of cancer and to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease.

At Cancer Research UK, we often talk about how much of the money we raise through our incredible supporters and partners is spent on life-saving cancer research. In the last financial year (18/19), we spent £587m on cancer research and increasing knowledge and awareness of the disease among a variety of audiences, including healthcare professionals, policymakers, people affected by cancer and the public. This is a significant amount of money – over half a billion pounds – so where does it go?

One example is our Cambridge Institute, which is home to more than 450 researchers and costs £121,000 to run for just one day. That’s almost £45m a year. Of course, a huge part of a figure like this is the cost of the people. From PhD students and postdocs to senior fellows and world-leading experts, we support more than 4,000 researchers, doctors and nurses as they push the boundaries of cancer research.

On average, £140,000 funds a non-clinical PhD student through a 3-4-year programme of training in the techniques and skills needed to embark on a scientific career, while a Programme Award of up to £2.5m over five years covers the salaries, expenses and equipment of a whole team of research and technical staff to address broad questions that we believe will transform our understanding of cancer.

We also need people to run clinical trials and clinical studies, such as TRACERx, which is led by our Chief Clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, and costs around £1.7m a year. TRACERx is mapping the differences between the individual lung cancer cells of nearly 850 cancer patients over time, from diagnosis through to disease relapse, in the hope of learning how to make precision medicine (also known as personalised medicine) a reality for people with lung cancer, one of the hardest cancers to treat.

Outside of the lab, £450,000 a year covers the cost of our team of 10 cancer nurses, who offer confidential support and guidance by phone to people affected by cancer five days a week. Julia Frater, one of our senior specialist cancer awareness nurses, discusses the reach of their work: “Last year, our nurses answered more than 1,300 individual enquiries through our telephone helpline, email service and Cancer Chat forum, providing vital support to those affected by cancer.” But it’s also vital to talk to people about cancer risks and the steps they can take to increase their chance of early diagnosis, which is what our Cancer Awareness Roadshow nurses do across the country every year. It costs around £1.4m a year to fund the roadshow, which helps people in communities that tend to have a higher incidence of cancer and poorer survival. More than 666,000 people have visited the roadshow since it began in 2006.


When it comes to the resources our researchers need, the costs can range from £3 for a pair of safety goggles to millions of pounds for high-tech machinery such as a mass spectrometer, which takes molecular fingerprints of cancer cells. This helps scientists find out which molecules are driving the disease to help identify targets for new, life-saving drugs.

Many of our research projects rely on blood samples and biopsies from patients, which cost £20 and £35 respectively, and many tumour samples need to be stored in special -80°C freezers, which cost around £15,000. £35 also buys 1,000 test tubes – the understated weaponry of cancer-fighting experiments – and £1,000 buys a set of high-tech pipettes that precisely measure tiny amounts of liquid, making sure our scientists get accurate results. 

Around £10,000 could cover a research group’s yearly usage of tissue culture plates, which are specialised dishes for growing cancer cells, while £25,000 buys the latest high-speed cameras to film live cells in real time in the lab and £50,000 buys a microscope that’s powerful enough to see the inner workings of cells at nano-dimensions.  

And with programmes like our Pioneer Awards, philanthropists can back the most imaginative and innovative ideas in cancer research. £200,000 covers two-year funding for the winners of these awards, which welcome applications from scientists at any stage in their career and from a broad range of disciplines, offering philanthropists and researchers a chance to think beyond conventional boundaries to accelerate discoveries.

At Cancer Research UK, we don’t receive any funding from the Government for our research, so whether it’s £10, £10,000 or £10m, the donations we receive from our supporters and partners are vital. Together, we can fund the people, and the resources and support they need, to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.


If you’re looking to start a philanthropic journey with Cancer Research UK, please contact [email protected]


Samantha Gharial is Philanthropy & Partnerships Copywriter at Cancer Research UK