Together we will beat cancer

Grand Challenge

How those affected by cancer shaped our most ambitious research grant ever.

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Grand Challenge in numbers

From the 'Big Thinks' to the winner's announcement - here's the journey of our most ambitious funding scheme to date.

Grand Challenge in numbers

From the 'Big Thinks' to the winner's announcement - here's the journey of our most ambitious funding scheme to date.

Getting started

From the moment Grand Challenge began, we worked alongside people affected by cancer.

“Patients are the ones who will experience the outcome from this research, so it makes sense that they should be part of this process.”

Prof Sir Mike Stratton, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

First, we invited patients and carers to events across the UK to discuss how they could help with Grand Challenge.

“The concept of the Grand Challenge was at a very early stage during the initial consultation, but the scale of what Cancer Research UK wanted to do was clear, it was impressive and exciting.”

Terry Kavanagh, patient

“I liked the way that CRUK was open about the fact that this was new to them too - we were growing together.”

Helen Bulbeck, patient

“This was new, big, bold, outside-the-box thinking and it really appealed to me to be a small part of it."

Margaret Grayson, patient

The fight to find a cure was a fight I wanted to be part of.



From these conversations, it was clear that people affected by cancer should contribute to generating the challenges at our ‘Big Think’ workshops and review the research applications. These ‘Big Think’ workshops aimed to help us to boil down the biggest issues in cancer research into manageable questions for further thought and discussion.

To help patients and carers who were going to attend our ‘Big Think’ workshops we developed a training day. This made sure the workshops were as effective as possible and that people affected by cancer felt they had the knowledge and understanding to make an impact.


Thinking big

The ‘Big Thinks’ brought people from all walks of life into one room, unified by their own personal connection to cancer. From doctors and engineers, to those affected by cancer, all were there to discuss one thing: the biggest challenges we face in beating cancer.

Find out what happened in London and Edinburgh here.

The ‘Big Thinks’ were melting pots of ideas and optimism.


“The atmosphere was exciting and exhilarating, the people were passionate.”

Peter Rainey, patient

“The creativity which was fostered by the ‘Big Thinks’ swept you up.”


“After the ‘Big Think’, I was even keener to get involved in the project."

Getting down to business

The patient voice wasn’t just heard at the ‘Big Think’ workshops. Next, we needed a smaller group of patient representatives that we could meet with regularly. These patient representatives would help set the application templates, co-write the funding guidelines, and create a system that would fairly judge how each research team planned to involve people affected by cancer in their research if they were funded.

We whittled the list of people who wanted to be involved down to 7 patients and carers. They had a range of personal experiences with cancer, but all shared the determination to tackle such an ambitious challenge.

“The patient panel had a different facet to it,” says Terry, who joined the patient panel after attending a ‘Big Think’ workshop.

I’d now become part of the Award’s process, shouldering more than a degree of responsibility for its ultimate outcome.

Setting the challenges

The ‘Big Think’ workshops got everyone’s creative juices flowing on what must be done to beat cancer. We then grouped these ideas to form overarching challenges, which were debated by a scientific panel that ultimately selected these 7 questions that we must answer to beat cancer:

Grand Challenge 1: can we develop a jab to prevent cancer?

Grand Challenge 2: wipe out cancers caused by the Epstein-Barr Virus

Grand Challenge 3: prevent cancer by studying ‘scars’ in its DNA

Grand Challenge 4: how do you tell the lethal cancers to the non-lethal ones?

Grand Challenge 5: build a ‘Google Street View’ for cancer

Grand Challenge 6: target cancer’s ‘super-controller’

Grand Challenge 7: kill cancer cells using new ‘smart drugs’

We then waited to see which scientists would accept the challenge.

In total the 7 Grand Challenges received 57 bids for funding. The applications had to state how their research would involve and engage people affected by cancer as we strongly felt that patient involvement could strengthen the research, particularly as the challenges all had a focus on patient benefit.

And this is the bit that our patient panel discussed – each application was reviewed by 2 panel members. Their role was to support, help and offer guidance to the research teams to ensure that people affected by cancer were at the heart of their research.

The patient panel wrote their thoughts on each application, which was then shared with the shortlisting panel and all the applicants, regardless of the outcome.

“Our job was to approve or disapprove the plans each bid had to involve people affected by cancer in developing their research.”


With this feedback in mind, the panel of expert scientists shortlisted 9 international teams with ideas ranging from virtual reality tumour tours to molecular checklists to spot potentially lethal cancers.

Our patient panel then got to work reviewing the plans for patient involvement in the final 9 ideas.

The chair of the patient panel, Peter Rainey, attended the final decision panel where he could ask direct questions to the 9 shortlisted teams. This made sure that we showed teams that we are serious about patients and carers being at the heart of the funded projects, and that we expected to see a clear involvement plan from the teams.

“After this we moved on to the final applications. We worked closer together at this point to critique each one, carefully brushing in the finer details and blending our thoughts together ready for submission to the Awards Panel.”




Deciding the winners

After much deliberation the Advisory panel announced who would be a part of our most ambitious research funding award to date.

Due to the standard of ideas there simply couldn’t be one winner.

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Grand Challenge announcement

In February, we announced our inaugural Grand Challenge teams to answer the biggest questions in cancer.

Grand Challenge announcement

In February, we announced our inaugural Grand Challenge teams to answer the biggest questions in cancer.

“Seeing the final culmination of the Grand Challenge in the form of the full bids and knowing that as a patient panel we played a part in selecting them, has been so rewarding.”


“As a cancer patient it’s difficult to put into words my feelings to have played a part in the Awards. Considering what the Challenge means and its value to cancer patients I feel proud and privileged to have been part of such a prestigious project and my involvement in it.”



Advancing research

“I think it’s built bridges, transcended real and virtual boundaries and taken the research agenda forward, not just in terms of scientific thinking but also in the ways of working.”



“The success was based on people coming together, different backgrounds, getting to know each other, mutual respect but having a common purpose.”


“Only time will tell what Grand Challenge delivers, but I think that great strides have been taken in collaborative working, creative thinking and levels of ambition among the research community. I’d also like to think that the level of awareness of the role to be played by non-scientists in the research process is significantly raised.

“The awards will take cancer research to a new horizon, changing the landscape for cancer patients forever.”


Being involved

“We are all winners in this, research will move forward and patients will benefit. Now it’s over I miss it!”


“Grand Challenge was a great learning process for Cancer Research UK as well as ourselves.”


“The safe thing would have been not to involve us, but they were prepared to be open to suggestions and challenge.”


“It encouraged everyone to break through and go for bold new ways of working and thinking.”


“I take away with me a lot of personal satisfaction from being involved along with a degree of ownership.”

Sharing expertise

The Grand Challenge is proof that collaboration between those affected by cancer and those trying to tackle it through research, benefits everyone, no matter their relationship with the disease.

“Patient representatives attended key meetings and have been part of ongoing conversations. And I see that continuing throughout the project,” says Professor Stratton.

“It wasn’t a one off event or series of events, it’s a true collaboration with them. They brought different views and also different elements of activity to this project.”


Dr Wesseling, who will be awarded £15 million in partnership with the Dutch Cancer Society for his work on ductal carcinoma in situ, a condition that can sometimes develop into breast cancer, agreed that it was the collaboration between scientists and people affected by cancer that made the Grand Challenge special.

“The involvement of patient advocates was an addition that made this project different,”said Dr Wesseling. “It helped us to continuously focus on our ultimate goal.”

“Being able to discuss unexpected challenges and opportunities with patients will be very useful.”

Prof Stratton

“It gave me a sense of making a difference, of being part of something bigger than all of us”.


“Patient involvement challenged us around some of the language we use and what patients’ expectations and hopes are.”

Prof Stratton

“Then as a group we explored how we could address these issues … such opportunities rarely appear.”

Prof Stratton

“Without patient input, we would not have been such a goal-oriented, effective and successful team.”

Dr Wesseling

We were told to ‘reach for the stars’, and I think we all did.


Thank you Cancer Research UK for the opportunity to bring the patient voice as part of the Grand Challenge.

Can you rise to the challenge?


If you’ve been affected by cancer, now’s the time to get involved. Share your experience and help shape our research by joining the Involvement Network.