Researchers don’t yet know when a ductal carcinoma in situ will turn into breast cancer.

SPL/Science Source

U.K. cancer charity awards £71 million for four major research challenges

Cancer Research UK, the cancer charity based in London, today announced up to £71 million in awards to four teams that will tackle some of the most daunting problems in cancer research. The 5-year Grand Challenge Awards will fund work on mapping tumors, forecasting when breast cancer will develop, and pinning down environmental causes of cancers.

The objective is to find “really novel ways” to address “urgent problems,” said Cancer Research UK CEO Harpal Kumar in a press briefing yesterday. He called the grants “the biggest … we or anyone else has ever given.” (A charity spokesperson later explained that Kumar meant funding provided to a single research project aimed at transforming a field, and that because of a drop in the value of the British pound, the grants are actually among the largest research awards ever.)

The Grand Challenge competition began more than 2 years ago by gathering input from experts around the world to identify big problems—those that are “almost not doable but you can see a path to a solution,” says the project’s advisory panel chair, cancer biologist Richard Klausner of Illumina Inc. in San Diego, California. The advisers came up with seven challenges, including cancer vaccines and targeting a specific cancer gene, that attracted 57 research proposals. From a short list of nine finalists, the program has now selected four international teams. 

Cancer biologist Greg Hannon of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom will lead an effort to image slices of breast tumors and assemble them into virtual reality models. A second team headed by chemist Josephine Bunch of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, U.K., will use mass spectrometry imaging to create a Google Earth–like tumor map that can zoom from the whole tumor to molecules. This work is important in part because “if you don’t know what molecules are present, then you don’t know what you’re trying to develop a medicine to ... attack,” Bunch says.

A group led by Jelle Wesseling of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam will aim to predict when precancerous breast lesions known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) will progress into cancer. By combining tumor and clinical data from thousands of patients, the team hopes to come up with an algorithm that will help women with DCIS avoid “the harm, the burden of unnecessary treatment,” Wesseling said.

A fourth project will look for “the causes of cancer through the lens of the cancer genome,” said leader Michael Stratton of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge. His team will sequence 5000 tumor samples of four cancer types from various countries where rates of these cancers differ, suggesting an environmental factor. The hope is to find telltale genetic signatures from carcinogens, akin to the pattern of mutations that tobacco leaves in lung tumors.

Each team will receive up to £15 million to £20 million over 5 years. (The original plan was to fund just one award, but after being “so blown away by the quality” of proposals, Kumar said, the project raised more money and partnered with the Dutch Cancer Society.) There will be more competitions starting later this year, Klausner said: “We want this to be the birth of a global approach” to solving problems that can “fundamentally change” our view of cancer.