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The finalists seeking £20m to take on cancer’s toughest challenges

Tim Gunn
by Tim Gunn | News

5 September 2023

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Graphic announcing the Cancer Grand Challenges shortlist

The 12 teams competing for up to £20m ($25m) each to take on some of the most complex problems in cancer were announced today by Cancer Grand Challenges, the funding initiative we co-founded with the National Cancer Institute in the US.  

The round four Cancer Grand Challenges shortlist includes a group studying metabolism to identify how obesity fuels certain cancers, one using cutting-edge neuroscience to reduce the side effects of some of our most effective cancer drugs, and another with a plan to build an unprecedented database for understanding cancer inequities. 

After the 9 new challenges were announced in March 2023, the Cancer Grand Challenges Scientific Committee reviewed a total of 178 applications from international teams looking to take them on.  

Their 12-team shortlist covers 8 of those original challenges and spans 84 institutions in 18 countries, uniting more than 130 world-class investigators and researchers. 

“We had a fantastic response from the global research community who rose to the task and submitted bold and innovative ideas to take on our new challenges,” said Dr David Scott, the director of Cancer Grand Challenges. 

“We are pleased to have a shortlist of 12 teams whose proposed research approaches we believe hold the greatest potential to make the progress against these cancer challenges that we urgently need. I’m looking forward to seeing how the teams develop their approaches further in their full applications.” 

Spotlight on children and young people’s cancers

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and two of the shortlisted teams, PROTECT and KOODAC, are aiming to develop new ways to treat solid tumours in children.  

These cancers are driven by different genetic changes, or mutations, than adult tumours. That means the lifesaving advances we’ve made in treating adult cancers with drugs that specifically target the mutations behind them haven’t translated to solid tumours in children.  

In fact, the proteins that drive childhood cancers have traditionally been considered ‘undruggable’. These two teams have the ideas, expertise and technologies we need to change that.  

Team KOODAC, led by Yael Mossé from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the US, hopes to develop drugs that break down or ‘degrade’ five of the most significant cancer-driving proteins in children and young people. 

I am humbled and incredibly energised to be one step closer to the opportunity to lead a team with outstanding and broad expertise in order to develop drugs that we intend to become the new standard of care for children with solid malignancies.

- Yael Mossé, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, US

Led by Stefan Pfister from the German Cancer Research Centre, Team PROTECT also plans to bring protein degraders, alongside other innovative drug candidates, to young patients.

We aim to develop therapeutics that specifically hit the Achilles’ heels, targets previously considered undruggable, for some of the most challenging cancers in children.

- Stefan Pfister, German Cancer Research Center

By testing a range of different treatments, Team PROTECT aims to create a specific drug development platform for solid tumours in children. That would make it easier for other researchers to turn discoveries about the unique biology of childhood cancers into targeted drugs that improve how we treat them.

Next steps for the Cancer Grand Challenges shortlist 

Each shortlisted team will now be given seed funding to help develop its vision into a full proposal for tackling its chosen challenge. They’ll also work closely with members of the Cancer Grand Challenges Advocacy Panel, who will help them focus on delivering the most benefit for people affected by cancer. 

The Scientific Committee will review the full proposals later this year. The winning teams will be announced in March 2024. 

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