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The story of Cancer Grand Challenges so far

Dr Iain Foulkes
by Iain Foulkes | Opinion

4 September 2023

1 comment 1 comment

Cancer Grand Challenges Scientific Committee member Professor Karen Vousden presenting at the Cancer Grand Challenges summit in London, March 2023
The 2023 Cancer Grand Challenges Summit in London. Photo by Greg Allen.

Tomorrow, we’ll reveal the shortlisted teams selected to compete for £20m ($25m) each as part of the fourth round of Cancer Grand Challenges. Across each round, we’ve been impressed by the quality and diversity of applications from global teams bidding to solve some of the most difficult challenges in cancer research.  

To date, over £200m has been invested across 11 teams, with more than 700 investigators and collaborators. It’s been an exciting and rewarding process, with some truly remarkable results already, but how did we get to this point? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the journey so far. 

A step into the unknown 

It’s nearly a decade since we first discussed the possibility of funding science differently. We were developing a new research strategy, looking for a way to power the high-risk research needed to make advances in the most complicated areas of cancer. At the time, researchers were telling us that Cancer Research UK’s funding structures often confined them to answering certain types of scientific questions, so there was space for something new. The main question for us was how to keep supporting research that we knew had the best chance of making an impact, while giving scientists the freedom they need to identify breakthroughs.  

We’d seen other things going on at the time, like the XPRIZE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges, which were bringing big ideas to big issues like poverty, access to water and global health. Framing their work in terms of challenges meant that research efforts and ideas were focused towards a common goal, an approach that hadn’t been explored in the cancer research space. I discussed the idea of a similar challenge-led, large-scale team science approach for cancer with Rick Klausner, the former director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), who had worked on the Gates Foundation’s challenges. Needless to say, Rick was on board and welcomed the idea of solving problems rather than projects that much funding provides. He recognised the potential to bring something new to funding in cancer research and together with Nic Jones, our Chief Scientist at the time, we began to develop the idea.  

Defining the problem 

We believed that by empowering teams to rise above the traditional boundaries of geography and discipline we could ultimately change outcomes for people with cancer. We also realised that outcomes have a lot to do with starting points and ours needed to be different. We called it ‘The Big Think’. 

When we launched CRUK Grand Challenge in 2015, we gathered groups of around 50-100 scientists, experts from industry, and people affected by cancer together in London and Edinburgh and simply asked, what would your grand challenge be? Everyone came with an idea, which we workshopped into a longlist of 30-40 different potential challenges. Our Grand Challenge Advisory Panel (now the Cancer Grand Challenges Scientific Committee) then met to discuss and set the first grand challenges. 

It was rare to crowdsource challenge ideas like this, and it took probably the best part of two days to find the grand challenge sweet spot. Getting the framing right for the questions was very important as otherwise you could end up saying, for example, how can we eliminate all cancers? Obviously, that would be a grand challenge, but it’s not amenable to £20m of funding. Equally, there are some ideas that would be too small for an investment of this size. The key was to set challenges that were broad enough in scope not to limit potential, but specific enough to generate tangible outcomes. 

Iain Foulkes chairs a Grand Debate session during The Big Think in 2015.
Iain Foulkes chairs a Grand Debate session during The Big Think in 2015.

We initially planned to commit funding to one team in the first year but decided to change tack when we and some generous donors saw the quality of the applications. Thanks to additional support from these donors, we were able to fund four challenges from the outset and really get behind the idea. It was quite a bold move for us at the time to fund awards at the level of £20m. Our traditional response mode offerings were a lot smaller, and we hadn’t tried a challenge-led approach before, but we really wanted to attract the best ideas and bring together experts that wouldn’t normally have the chance to collaborate. 

When you look at the challenges that we’ve come up with in recent years, I think it would be fair to say that Cancer Grand Challenges has played an important role in setting the cancer research agenda globally. While we cannot fund teams to answer every question that we set, the unanswered challenges often stimulate research from other organisations across the world.  

The process of applying for a challenge – whether successful or not – has also brought communities together. An example of this is our round one challenge to eradicate Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)-induced cancers from the world. Although we didn’t end up funding a team for the challenge, one of the shortlisted teams told us how beneficial they found the process to be, both for the team and wider research community. 

A new era 

Our innovative, challenge-led approach attracted the attention of some of the biggest players in the world of cancer research. In August 2020, we partnered with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the US to elevate Cancer Grand Challenges to the next level. It was an interesting moment to launch such a big project. Covid-19 meant we had to do everything virtually, but, at the same time, all the work that was going into the pandemic response was demonstrating just how powerful international team science could be. Uniting the two largest funders of cancer research in the world behind a mission to unite the world’s brightest minds against cancer’s toughest challenges represented an even bigger opportunity to transform outcomes for people affected by cancer.  

This new partnership has helped us to attract more philanthropic support from individuals and organisations who are motivated by the idea of crossing borders to take on a global problem. It’s enabled us to build a sustainable platform and unite an international community of partners to make the greatest progress against cancer that we can.  

Our impact 

Across each round, we’ve attracted world class scientists, and the range and quality of applications has been crucial to the success of Cancer Grand Challenges. It really shouldn’t be a surprise to see that the teams we’ve funded are shaping the future of cancer research, but I’ve been so impressed by the truly groundbreaking work that they have delivered so far.  

The funding period for our first-round teams is coming to an end shortly. They’ve made some seminal discoveries along the way. The Mutographs team fundamentally changed the way we think about how carcinogens cause cancer, while the IMAXT team has created an entirely new way to study tumours using virtual reality. We’ll be sharing a full evaluation of the impact of our round one teams – Mutographs, IMAXT, Rosetta, and PRECISION – when their initial funding comes to an end. 

Looking to the future 

It’s an incredibly exciting time for Cancer Grand Challenges. Our approach reflects the fact that cancer is a global problem. By setting a challenge, we can bring a sense of urgency and focus to an area. In the most recent round, we have seen this happen with cancer inequities and children’s cancers.  

Each challenge empowers experts from across the research community to come together in new ways and bring forward creative, innovative and high-risk ideas. From there, our flexible funding model gives research teams the space and the freedom to follow the science. Cancer Grand Challenges also complements and is enabled by our other funding models – it won’t replace them. From a UK perspective, the programme also opens a window to the incredible science underway here and serves to facilitate a flow of talent, which is a hugely important and valuable thing itself.  

We hope to see the programme develop with new funders coming on board so that we can continue to push boundaries and solve the biggest challenges in cancer research.   


  • Sheila mills
    25 October 2023

    Wonderful to know great progress is being made across all these clever people to find how science can win


  • Sheila mills
    25 October 2023

    Wonderful to know great progress is being made across all these clever people to find how science can win