A blood vessel within a melanoma (brown) is part of the tumor microenvironment, one area targeted by Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenges.

A blood vessel within a melanoma (brown) is part of the tumor microenvironment, one area targeted by Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenges.

K. Hodivala-Dilke & M. Stone, Wellcome Images

Cancer Research UK announces grand challenges competition

A £20 million grant awaits a team of researchers who submit the best proposal for tackling one of seven grand challenges in cancer.

The new competition, announced today by Cancer Research UK, the giant U.K. research charity, is meant to spur collaborations aimed at exploring untested but promising ideas. “They’re willing to take some risks and see some projects fail,” says advisory board member Brian Druker of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who helped develop Gleevec, a model for drugs targeted at molecular defects in cancers. The charity expects to spend £100 million on the program over the next 5 years through a series of 5-year grants.

The challenges were developed over the past few months by Druker and other advisers. The list includes mapping the cells and molecules within tumors, or the microenvironment; devising drugs that target MYC, a gene involved in many cancers; eradicating cancers caused by Epstein-Barr virus, a major cause of certain cancers in East Asia; and developing vaccines to prevent nonviral cancers.

These areas have been studied before, but haven’t had enough resources or the science hasn’t been ripe enough, says Nic Jones, chief scientist for the charity. For example, recent insights into how tumors evade the immune system that led to several new drugs could shed light on vaccines that prevent tumors from growing in the first place. “You could imagine how powerful that could be,” Jones says. Team members may come from both academia and industry and must include U.K. researchers.

The U.K. effort brings to mind Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C), a Hollywood-backed fundraising effort that has put millions of dollars into large research “dream teams” since 2008. It is also in line with Provocative Questions, a U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) project to identify neglected questions in cancer launched in 2010 by then-Director Harold Varmus. But the Cancer Research UK grants will be an order of magnitude larger than the NCI grants and address more fundamental questions than projects funded by SU2C, which are supposed to lead to a clinical trial within 3 years.

Cancer Research UK won’t mind if some researchers complain about what’s not on the list of challenges, Druker says. “If part of what this does is stimulate a debate, that’s a good thing.”

Teams that fail to win the challenge may seek funding from other programs at Cancer Research UK or elsewhere, Jones says. The losers could also try again if their proposal addresses a challenge that remains on the list of eligible topics, which will be updated annually.

Preproposals for the first round are due in February. The winning team will be announced next fall.

*Correction, 12 October, 8:35 a.m.: This story originally said Cancer Research UK was planning to spend £200 million on the program over the next 5 years. The error has been corrected.

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