Cancer Research UK announces Grand Challenge teams to answer biggest questions in cancer

February 09, 2017

Cancer Research UK today (Friday) announces that four international teams are the first recipients of its global £100m Grand Challenge competition, which aims to overcome the biggest challenges facing cancer researchers in a global effort to beat cancer sooner.

This new Cancer Research UK initiative has been overseen by a panel of world-leading researchers*, chaired by Dr Rick Klausner, former director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

The winning projects are set to revolutionise our understanding of cancer, and enable us to better prevent, diagnose and treat the disease in the future. The international, multidisciplinary teams will be using unparalleled approaches to help develop pioneering solutions to some of cancer's major challenges.

The four winning teams will:

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "Cancer Research UK set up the Grand Challenge awards to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer. We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress. We're incredibly excited to be able to support these exceptional teams as they help us achieve our ambition.

"Cancer is a global problem, and these projects are part of the global solution. Together, we will redefine cancer - turning it from a disease that so many people die from, to one that many people can live with. We will reduce the number of people worldwide affected by cancer and achieve our goal of beating cancer sooner."

Cancer Research UK set up Grand Challenge in 2015 and committed up to £100m to this new approach to help increase the pace of research.

To help decide the specific challenges that could transform progress against cancer, Cancer Research UK brought together some of the brightest minds and passionate voices in cancer research from across the world.

These included cancer researchers, doctors, engineers, physicists, behavioural scientists, epidemiologists, technologists and patients.

This process helped identify the big, intractable issues in cancer research, before the advisory panel of international experts reviewed and distilled them down into concrete, manageable challenges.

Seven grand challenges** were then announced, each of which identified some of the greatest barriers preventing progress in cancer research.

The international research community were asked to form multidisciplinary teams and submit proposals to answer the challenges.

In February 2016, high quality applications were submitted from more than 200 institutes, spanning 25 countries, uniting more than 400 world-class research groups.

Originally, the plan was for Grand Challenge to fund one new team every year for five years, with each team receiving up to £20m over five years for their research. But, the exceptional quality of the teams and their submissions meant that there were several proposals the panel were felt to be too important not to fund.

Cancer Research UK has now secured a partnership with the Dutch Cancer Society and an anonymous overseas donor to enable a total of four proposals to be funded.

As a result, the commitments in the first round of Grand Challenge funding will now be up to £71m***.

Phase two of Grand Challenge, when Cancer Research UK plans to issue a set of revised challenges, will launch this summer.

Dr Rick Klausner, chair of the Grand Challenge advisory panel and former director of the National Cancer Institute, said: "When we began the Grand Challenge we sought scientific adventurers - people willing to come together in new ways, to think differently, and bring novel approaches to answer the big questions in cancer. These unique teams have done just that.

"Cancer is a complex, and often brutal disease. Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge is helping us change the way we to tackle it - bringing together different disciplines, ideas, and people on a global scale. We've got our sights set on the horizon of discovery, and I'm confident these Grand Challenge teams will lead to life-changing results."
For more information about Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge, visit

For media enquiries contact Paul Thorne in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8352 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.

Notes to editor:

* The panel includes Professor Sir Adrian Bird, Professor Suzanne Cory, Professor Dame Sally Davies, Professor Ed Harlow, Professor Tyler Jacks, Dr Rick Klausner, Professor Sir David Lane, Dr Christopher Wild and Dr Brian Druker.

** The seven challenges were to:

1. Develop vaccines to prevent non-viral cancers
2. Eradicate EBV-induced cancers from the world
3. Discover how unusual patterns of mutation are induced by different cancer-causing events
4. Distinguish between lethal cancers that need treating, and non-lethal cancers that don't
5. Find a way of mapping tumours at the molecular and cellular level
6. Develop innovative approaches to target the cancer super-controller MYC
7. Deliver biologically active macromolecules to any and all cells in the body *** Extra funding for this first phase has come from partnering with the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF) which is half funding the team led by Dr Jelle Wesseling and an anonymous donor who is funding the team led by Dr Josephine Bunch's project.



Lead investigator: Professor Sir Mike Stratton, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK

Funding = Up to £20 million


Things in our environment and behaviours like smoking and drinking alcohol, can cause cancer by damaging our cells' DNA, leaving a distinctive pattern known as a 'mutational fingerprint'. But right now, scientists don't know everything that causes them.

Professor Mike Stratton and his team of scientists from the UK, France and the US, together with collaborators from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, want to fill in the missing gaps.

In a project of epic scale that spans 5 continents and 5,000 patient samples, Stratton's team want to build a much deeper understanding of DNA damage - what causes it and how it leads to cancer. They want to identify as yet unknown causes of cancer, determine which ones are due to environmental exposures and lifestyle behaviours, and figure out exactly how they cause cancer.

This research could dramatically improve our understanding of what causes cancer and lead to better information for people on how to reduce their risk of developing cancer.


Lead investigator: Dr Jelle Wesseling, Netherlands Cancer Institute, The Netherlands

Co-funded with the Dutch Cancer Society = up to £15 million

Co-investigators: is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to