Cancer Research UK’s £100m aims to meet ‘grand challenges’

Iain Foulkes on how scientists can win part of huge grant to push forward the frontiers of cancer research

November 5, 2015
Scientist Nathan Brown moves 3D model of HSP90 protein
Source: Reuters
In with the new: for novel thinking to address its seven research priorities, CRUK needs ‘to include genuinely novel minds’, says one scholar

In recent weeks, three of the UK’s biggest charities have announced new research funding strategies. The Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation have all unveiled their priorities for the next five years, and in the case of the first two, there is a new emphasis on tackling the very biggest challenges over a longer time frame than their normal grants.

At the end of October, Wellcome said that it would spend £5 billion over the next five years, almost as much as it has done in the past decade.

In addition to traditional grants to fund researchers with promising ideas, there will be more money to address the largest global problems, such as drug-resistant bacteria. In these cases, project cycles will be much longer – as they were when the trust funded the sequencing of the human genome, for example – in order to avoid what Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome’s director, called the “pressure to publish” in a short space of time, which was preventing researchers from having sufficient space to “dream”.

Cancer Research UK’s strategy, launched earlier in October, also stresses the big picture. Seven “grand challenges” in cancer science have been revealed, and researchers will bid for up to £20 million to be released annually to fund projects of five years or more.

The charity “funds a lot of investigator-led science but there was scope for more to tackle bigger challenges” that are interdisciplinary and international, Iain Foulkes, CRUK’s executive director for strategy and research funding, told Times Higher Education.

These challenges are not generally at the applied end of science. “It’s unrealistic to say that you’re going to have a clinical output at the end of this project,” he cautioned. “Some of these challenges are pretty fundamental.”

However, he added that “we would hope there’s a real pathway to the clinic at the end”, although the charity would not be “putting a time frame on it”.

For the first call, the charity is asking for expressions of interest of under 3,000 words by February. These applications will be winnowed out and those still in the running will be given £30,000 to work up a full proposal, with the winner decided later in 2016, Dr Foulkes explained.

Because the money is set to stretch over only five grants, two of the seven grand challenges may go unaddressed. But “although we have £100 million on the table, we aim to grow that”, Dr Foulkes added. The list of challenges is “live”, and may be updated as the project continues.

But is £20 million per project such a large sum that it will encourage profligacy in researchers? Dr Foulkes pointed out that the charity has other funding streams for smaller projects. “This is about doing something different,” he said.

Scientists were welcome to bid for less than the maximum, although he acknowledged that he had “never known a scientist to do that”.

“We don’t just want another programme grant scaled up to £20 million,” he said later.

“In general, a diversity of funding initiatives is likely to give better coverage of a big and complex field (which cancer certainly is),” commented Douglas Kell, professor of bioanalytical science at the University of Manchester, and former chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

But more important is bringing in new scientists to these major projects, Professor Kell said, a requirement that should be mandatory.

“I think that there is always a tendency to fund folk inside a ‘club’ (of existing fundees), and if they want genuinely novel thinking they need to include genuinely novel minds. Obviously that should not exclude the folk they normally fund as these people have the domain knowledge,” he added.

Methods to ensure reproducibility and open access to data, currently of major concern in science, will be a “key factor” in deciding who is awarded the money, Dr Foulkes said.

Both CRUK and the Wellcome Trust are based in the UK. But their mission to seek out the best researchers to solve global problems inevitably leads them to distribute some of their money abroad. At Wellcome, 20 to 25 per cent is spent abroad.

For CRUK’s grand challenges, at least a quarter of the grant must stay in the UK, although this does not imply that the pitch must involve international collaboration. “This is about getting the best team”, regardless of location, Dr Foulkes said.

This raises the question of why CRUK requires any money to be spent in the UK at all. Dr Foulkes explained that the charity, having paid for capital projects in the UK, wants to continue to support their operation.

And although British donors are happy to fund top research wherever it is, “we fundraise in the UK on the basis of that great [UK] science”, he said.

“We are a long way” from not prioritising the UK in some way when distributing money, he said.

Yet uncertainty over government support for science casts a shadow over these new charity funding streams. Specifically, in September, THE revealed that universities were having to turn down charity grants because of a real-terms fall in the government subsidy that covers the overheads of doing the research, making it simply too costly for universities to take on the project.

As the chancellor George Osborne prepares to announce science funding for the next five years in the next spending review on 25 November, Dr Foulkes warned: “There’s a big concern if government doesn’t support the sector in terms of funding of research. If that goes away or isn’t supported at the level it is, that’s a real risk to us.”

Cancer Research UK’s seven grand challenges

  • Develop vaccines to prevent non-viral cancers
  • Eradicate Epstein-Barr virus-induced cancers from the world
  • Discover how unusual patterns of mutation are induced by different cancer-causing events
  • Distinguish between lethal cancers that need treating, and non-lethal cancers that don’t
  • Find a way of mapping tumours at the molecular and cellular level
  • Develop innovative approaches to target the cancer super-controller MYC gene
  • Deliver biologically active macromolecules to any and all cells in the body

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Print headline: £100m to tackle ‘grand challenges’ in cancer

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