A Cancer Grand Challenges graphic announcing 9 new challenges

How does weight impact cancer risk? What can we do to make breakthrough immunotherapies work for more people? And why are viruses that infected our ancestors millions of years ago contributing to how cancers develop today?

Those are some of the biggest questions in cancer research. Answering them won’t be easy, but it has the potential to transform the way we prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease. And that’s exactly what we’re here to do.

Today, Cancer Grand Challenges, which we co-founded with the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 2020, announced 9 new research challenges, and invited researchers from around the globe to put together teams with the vision and expertise to take them on.

Applications are open until 22 June 2023, and the funded teams, announced in March next year, will each receive up to £20m ($25m).

Cancer Grand Challenges is setting the agenda for researchers across the world to come together and make change,” said Dr David Scott, the Director of Cancer Grand Challenges. “Our initiative inspires new thinking – bringing together world-class, multidisciplinary teams to find bold, new solutions to cancer’s most complex problems.”

Previously funded Cancer Grand Challenges teams have already made incredible discoveries. The Mutographs team found that quitting smoking could allow new, healthy cells to actively replenish the lining of our airways, while IMAXT have created an entirely new way to study cancer using virtual reality.

Most recently, since starting work last year, the eDyNAmiC team have shown how unusual rings of DNA (extrachromosomal DNA, or ecDNA) in cancer cells help them evolve and resist treatment. The team is now working towards developing drugs that specifically target ecDNA, which could change how doctors respond to many of the most aggressive and hard-to-treat cancers.

New challenge spotlight: Chemotherapy-induced neurotoxicities

Chemotherapy is a cornerstone in the treatment of many types of cancer. Although these therapies kill cancer cells, they also damage healthy cells, and can cause long-lasting side effects as well as long-term damage to the nervous system. This ‘neurotoxicity’ can severely limit patients’ quality of life and day-to-day functioning.

Our understanding of why this toxicity occurs is limited, and we don’t yet have a reliable way to predict who will be most susceptible to these side effects. This challenge calls for bold and new approaches to develop this understanding, ultimately to inform how we can prevent and treat chemotherapy-induced neurotoxicity. If we can prevent and treat these side effects, much-needed improvements can be achieved for people receiving chemotherapy.

Creativity and collaboration

The challenges announced today were born out of a months-long, global conversation with researchers and people affected by cancer. Over 300 ideas were submitted as part of a rigorous grassroots process of workshops, consultation and debate.

From there, the Cancer Grand Challenges Scientific Committee have recommended 9 research questions. These are challenges that give the right research teams the best opportunity to make timely, tangible impacts.

There are funding opportunities for teams that can build up the knowledge we need to reduce cancer inequities, investigate the global rise in adults under 50 years old developing cancer, and uncover the ways cancer cells change to survive treatment. One of the most attention-grabbing challenges specifically looks at ‘drugging the undruggable’ with therapies that target the drivers of solid tumours in children.

Taking on problems like those means digging down into the fundamentals of cancer, deepening our understanding in a way that can advance the entire field.

That’s too much for any one scientist. It might be more than a single research institute, or even a whole country full of them, can do on its own, either. While research into cancer has made enormous strides recently, with around half of patients now surviving the disease for more than 10 years, there are still areas that more traditional funding models haven’t been able to unlock.

That’s why uniting the world’s biggest funders and brightest minds across borders, boundaries and disciplines is so important.

“These ambitious challenges need bold ideas, extraordinary science and the world’s best minds,” said Professor Sir David Lane, chair of the Cancer Grand Challenges Scientific Committee. “I’m excited to see how the global research community plans to take them on.”

New challenge spotlight: Ageing and cancer

Ageing is a major risk factor for cancer. As we age, the cells in our bodies accumulate genetic changes called mutations, and normal cellular processes begin to go awry. As these changes build up, the likelihood of getting cancer increases. The immune system also becomes less effective with ageing and may become unable to detect and eliminate cancer cells when they arise.

Research has shown that the processes underlying ageing overlap with those of cancer development, but how distinct ageing processes increase cancer risk in different organs is unclear. Because no single ageing process explains cancer risk across all tissues, different cellular processes associated with ageing are likely to drive cancer risk in different organs.

This challenge seeks to gain a thorough understanding of the cellular and immune changes associated with ageing and how they contribute to cancer risk in different organs. This knowledge could help us to find new strategies to decrease cancer risk in ageing populations.

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