Nick and Annette Razey
Their donation, which rises to £1.25m with Gift Aid, will help scientists uncover secrets of the gut microbiome, which could lead to new bowel cancer treatments.
When Nick and Annette Razey donated £100k in autumn last year through our Challenge Fund*, we were thrilled that they had donated such a generous amount to support vital research in our greatest hour of need. So, when just a month later, they donated a further £1m plus Gift Aid to advance our bowel cancer research, we were quite simply astonished by their commitment to our science and ambitions.
“I sold my company back in July, and we’re lucky to have made some money,” says Nick, who just a few weeks ago finished successful treatment for bowel cancer. “Last year was miserable. But now, I’m feeling really good.”
Nick and wife Annette decided to use the proceeds from the sale of the business to support the Cancer Grand Challenges initiative – a global research funding platform co-founded by us and the US National Cancer Institute. Through the initiative, a panel of eminent scientists and patient advocates set ambitious challenges to inspire new thinking, providing diverse, global teams with up to £20m over five years to unleash their scientific creativity and tackle the biggest problems in cancer research.
But first, Nick and Annette were keen to take part in our Challenge Fund – whereby donations of £100k or above are matched pound for pound by a pot of money donated by three of our closest supporters. “We thought it was a great idea,” recalls Annette. “It’s such an incentive to have your gift doubled.” Thanks to them, and other generous philanthropists who donated through the fund, we’ve almost exhausted the £1.6m matching pot. The money raised helps to ensure we can continue funding the best-quality, most innovative cancer science, despite the huge reduction in fundraising income we’ve suffered due to the pandemic.
But the couple’s main interest was in supporting Cancer Grand Challenges, which presented a unique opportunity to back cutting-edge, international research. “I love the fact that it’s so collaborative,” says Annette. “Scientists from across the world coming together to work so hard on a particular challenge – we wanted to do everything we could to support them.”
One team particularly stood out. OPTIMISTICC is a group of more than 60 investigators from Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, the US and the UK. They’re using their diverse specialisms, including genomics, microbiology and pathology, to unravel the hidden world of the gut microbiome. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this collection of trillions of microbes, spanning bacteria, fungi and viruses, is intricately linked to bowel cancer. By exploring how these microbes drive cancer and influence a person’s response to treatment, and then translating their findings into clinical strategies, the OPTIMISTICC team could transform outcomes for people with bowel cancer around the world.
Making new connections
The team has already published critical findings that make a new connection between the KRAS gene and the IL-22 receptor. 45% of bowel cancers involve a mutation in the KRAS gene, which can detrimentally affect how a person will respond to treatment. The team’s findings revealed that high levels of IL-22 in combination with a faulty KRAS gene can cause uncontrollable division of bowel cells, driving tumour development. Testing for both high levels of IL-22 and the KRAS mutation would allow for better monitoring of people with the disease, and if the team could find a way to block the IL-22 receptor, it could lead to a new way of treating bowel cancer.
Nick’s experience was certainly a factor in the couple’s decision to support this project, but their motivations extend beyond the impact this could have on bowel cancer outcomes. “So much of the immune system is in the gut,” explains Annette. “Findings relating to improving the immune system there won’t just help prevent bowel cancer, they could also help prevent a whole load of other diseases.”
Nick agrees. “There were various exciting projects that we could have chosen. But we wanted to see our donation go towards something that we could really follow and see the end results of,” he explains. “That’s what OPTIMISTICC offers. We both have an interest in gut health too, and find it fascinating that people used to think the brain was in the gut. It all struck a chord with us.”
Developing a relationship with the research
Through the Cancer Grand Challenges platform, the couple have been able to meet remotely with the team’s principal investigators Professors Matthew Meyerson and Wendy Garrett – based at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – to hear about their progress directly. Nick says this opportunity to engage has been highly rewarding. “By sponsoring a team, you develop a relationship with the research and the scientists. You feel proud that they’re doing well.”
Their relationship with OPTIMISTICC has also given Annette a new appreciation for how hardworking researchers are. “I’ve come to realise what a slog it can be being a scientist. You hear about discoveries in the news, but you don’t hear about the years and years of very diligent research and false starts that led to them,” she says. “It really does take a certain type of person to put all that work in and to keep going without ever having certainty about the end result.
“I have tremendous admiration for scientists in the OPTIMISTICC team who work long hours and are so committed to their research. The COVID-19 vaccines show how much the scientific community can achieve, even when the odds are stacked against them. It’s made me realise how much we can do to help fight cancer and detect it earlier. When money and time is ploughed into research, scientists can produce amazing results.”
*Thanks to the philanthropy of three of our closest supporters, the Challenge Fund allows supporters who donate £100k or more to have their donation matched, doubling the impact of their gift.
– Joanna Lewin