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.
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.