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Cancer Grand Challenges: a new global partnership

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

27 August 2020

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Three scientists working in a laboratory

This morning, we announced the launch of Cancer Grand Challenges: a major new partnership between Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the US federal agency for cancer research.  

Here, our Executive Director of Research & Innovation, Dr Iain Foulkes, our Chief Scientist, Professor Karen Vousden, our Chief Clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, and our Director of Cancer Grand Challenges, Dr David Scott, discuss the role Cancer Grand Challenges will play in our plans for recovery.  

Uniting the two largest funders of cancer research in the world, Cancer Grand Challenges represents a truly global effort to transform outcomes for people affected by cancer. 

Recent months have put international team science in the spotlight. Researchers from all fields have united against COVID-19 with an unprecedented spirit of collaboration, and developments that may have taken months or even years under normal circumstances are now taking just weeks. The pace of progress made possible by the global community coming together at such scale has been impressive.  

The pandemic is changing the way people work together. However, it has also put a huge strain on our income at Cancer Research UK and forced us to make some incredibly difficult decisions about our future and the future of the research we support. This includes cutting our annual research spend by up to £150m over the next four to five years.  

We recognise the disappointment and lost opportunities that have resulted from these cuts and continue to explore all avenues to mitigate their impact, including pressing hard for support from the government.  

We are incredibly proud of the role our community plays in the cancer research effort. 

We understand the strain the pandemic has put on our researchers and are incredibly proud of the role our community continues to play in the cancer research effort. It is frustrating to see a short-term crisis so significantly impact the life-saving work of our community when our underlying position, and that of the UK research ecosystem, is so strong.  

While we have been forced to change the scale of our work in the coming years, our ambition remains the same. Beating cancer requires a diverse range of approaches combined with the drive and dedication of researchers across our network. It also demands a global research effort akin to the response shown towards tackling COVID-19. Along with our immediate plans for recovery, we must plan for regrowth. Cancer Grand Challenges is a clear example of where medical research charities add value to the research environment, in the UK and beyond, and will play an important part in our strategy to regain lost momentum.  

Cancer Grand Challenges will play an important part in our strategy to regain lost momentum.  

Building a global platform  

Cancer Grand Challenges builds on a community of seven teams, supported in two previous challenge-setting rounds, who are already making exciting progress. New findings have shed light on the way ex-smokers’ lungs heal and repair, highlighting the benefit of quitting even after a lifetime of smoking. Another team has built the first model of cancer that can be viewed in virtual reality, technology that could transform the way we visualise cancer and diagnose patients.  

We have witnessed shifts in the way teams work when given the opportunity to commit to large-scale collaborations across multiple geographies, backgrounds and disciplines. These teams comprise more than 600 investigators and collaborators from nine countries, but the community is truly greater than the sum of its parts.  

Our new partnership has leveraged £175m from the NCI and we have committed to raising a further £120m over the next three rounds of the initiative. We are committed to securing these funds, which we otherwise would not have been able to access, through a new global philanthropy campaign. We believe Cancer Grand Challenges will attract world-leading partners and philanthropic support from people who are motivated by its global team-science approach, building a sustainable platform with which to solve the most complex challenges in cancer research. This strategy ensures Cancer Grand Challenges is not drawing on funding that is available for our other funding streams and initiatives.  

Round three launches in October  

Over the past year, we led a series of international workshops to determine a new set of challenges – those which, if solved, could transform the way we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. These are big questions that demand bold, novel approaches and we can only start to break them down with time, money and by bringing together different skills, ideas and expertise.  

We will pose these questions to the global research community in October, inviting applications with the potential to unlock radical new thinking. Up to four international, multidisciplinary teams will each receive £20m to take on these challenges.  

After a difficult few months for medical research, Cancer Grand Challenges provides significant new funding and opportunities for talented, creative teams to collaborate, irrespective of location or discipline.  

No single scientist, institution or even country will beat cancer alone. We need to rise above national boundaries and disciplines and bring new thinking to problems that have long stood in the way of progress. In October, we invite you, the CRUK research community, to rise to the challenge and come forward with exciting, innovative proposals to perform team science in a way that could truly change outcomes for people with cancer around the world.  

We’ll reveal our challenges to the international research community on 14 October 2020. Be the first to find out about the new challenges – sign up to receive the Cancer Grand Challenges newsletter