Source: Science Photo Library
The latest statistics released by Cancer Research UK made headlines last month as it became clear that advances in medical science have helped more people than ever to survive the disease. But alongside the encouraging figures was good news for researchers, too.
The launch of the charity’s new five-year research strategy, which coincided with the release of the data, signalled a spending boost for cancer research in the UK. Speaking at the launch, the charity’s chief executive, Harpal Kumar, said: “Our hope is that we will be able to increase our spend on research by at least 50 per cent over the next five to 10 years.”
The charity now spends £260 million a year on targeted research, and it hopes to boost this to £402 million in the years ahead.
Funding will be focused in several key areas, and the charity is using the additional funds to introduce a number of new schemes to support innovative science, multidisciplinary work and mid-career researchers. At least three of the charity’s 18 translational research centres, which are partnerships with universities, NHS trusts and other charities, are also earmarked for accelerated funding.
The charity is able to boost its research spend thanks to an uplift in fundraising after the 2008 economic crisis. “We, like many other organisations, struggled through that period and retained a flat level of expenditure…We have seen that turn around, and a number of new fundraising products are starting to generate new income for us,” said Iain Foulkes, CRUK’s executive director of strategy and research funding.
While noting that the extra financial resources are dependent on how well fundraising activities perform, Dr Foulkes said that he had “every confidence” that the charity would meet its goal. The additional £142 million a year boost is a “base ambition” and the charity “would like to do more than that”, he noted.
“It really makes the UK a very exciting place to do world-leading cancer research,” Dr Foulkes added.
Nic Jones, the charity’s chief scientist, said he wanted the UK to become the “go-to place for cancer research” compared with other countries, many of which are seeing stagnant or falling funding for such work.
The stability of CRUK’s funding environment is “really important”, he said, as it allows the charity to develop programmes for the long term.
Teaming up for the challenge
Among the “bold new initiatives” that the charity is planning for the next five years is a “grand challenge” funding stream designed to tackle some of the biggest questions in cancer research. Awards of up to £20 million will be made to consortia that bring together academia and industry.
Another is designed to foster collaborations between biologists and physical scientists. “Bringing disciplines together is going to be important across some of the big priorities that we have,” Professor Jones explained. This could involve engineers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and materials scientists working with biologists. For example, he said, diagnosing cancer earlier will require biological and technological expertise.
Researchers with innovative but high-risk ideas will also get the opportunity to bid for funding in a new scheme intended to carve out new approaches to tackling cancer. Professor Jones said that the competitive nature of traditional funding programmes could mean that some novel ideas slip through the net because researchers may not submit them for fear that they will be viewed as unrealistic and rejected.
The innovation funding stream will fund “very high-risk but very high-reward ideas”, he said. “We absolutely realise that a lot of these will not be successful, but some of them might be and spawn some pretty exciting new approaches.”
Another of the new funding streams hopes to attract immunologists working in other areas of medical science into the oncology field. This investment reflects the fact that immunological approaches to cancer therapy are generating “a lot of excitement”, Professor Jones said.
“In this country we have huge strengths in immunology, but not all of it is in tumour immunology…where we really need to build up capacity.”
Help up the ladder
Finally, a scheme that targets mid-career researchers will help to support scientists who have completed postdoctoral positions but have yet to become established investigators.
Dr Foulkes explained that CRUK had a series of training schemes that cover PhD students, postdoctoral awards and programme grants for established scientists.
“Scientists were coming off those early career development awards and struggling to compete with the established senior scientists,” he said. The 10 new awards hope to plug this gap in the pipeline.
CRUK’s new strategy reveals that the charity will continue to support priority areas of research. These include early diagnosis, which will receive a “substantially” increased investment of £20 million a year over the next five years. Also pegged for a “two- to threefold” boost in funding is research into cancers with relatively low survival rates affecting the lung, the pancreas, the oesophagus and the brain.
Fundamental research, work on new treatments, personalised medicine and tobacco control also feature on the charity’s priority list, as does funding to help ramp up the number of patients given the opportunity to join clinical trials.
Dr Kumar said that while working with the research community to develop the charity’s strategy, he was struck by “the sense of excitement and optimism” in cancer research.
He added that investing more funding into the “very best research” and supporting new funding streams would help to build on the “monumental progress” that scientists have made in helping more people survive cancer.
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