The NCI and Cancer Research UK have launched Cancer Grand Challenges, a $380 million initiative to fund global research on some of the most pressing issues in cancer research. For the first round of funding, the program plans to select up to four research teams to each receive approximately $25 million distributed over 5 years as they probe one of nine recently announced challenge questions.
The NCI joined forces with Cancer Research UK (CRUK) on Cancer Grand Challenges, a $380 million initiative to fund global research on pressing issues in cancer research. For the first round, the program plans to select up to four research teams to each receive about $25 million distributed over 5 years as they probe one of nine recently announced challenge questions. Applications will be accepted until April 22, 2021.
The challenges, developed by international panels of scientists and patient advocates, encourage investigators to move beyond specific problems to broad issues in cancer research. They range from answering basic questions about the cellular and genetic underpinnings of cancer to exploring innovative approaches for cancer prevention and treatment.
“We were looking for areas where the greatest impact is possible,” says CRUK's Iain Foulkes, PhD. “The nine challenges are major research hurdles that can be addressed through large-scale efforts typically involving multiple institutions and multidisciplinary teams.”
For example, one question asks researchers to investigate how and why cancer cells enter senescence and stop dividing—and whether senescent cells can be targeted and killed.
“Senescence is an effective anticancer mechanism within the body,” says René Bernards, PhD, of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. “We have evidence that cancer cells can still enter senescence, but we urgently need reliable biomarkers to identify these cells and better understand what sets them apart.”
This information could help researchers develop techniques to induce senescence in proliferating cancer cells and/or find treatments to target these cells, he says. “There's a lot of potential to unlock there, and Cancer Grand Challenges could be the key.”
Another challenge focuses on improving the entry of cancer drugs into cells. Teams are asked to come up with innovative delivery methods, such as nanoparticles, or techniques that imitate cellular infiltration by viruses and toxins.
“Macromolecules can be engineered to be far more specific and active than current small-molecule therapies, but we still struggle to find ways to deliver these macromolecules to the inside of cells,” says Sir David Lane, PhD, of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore. The main issue for macromolecules, he adds, is crossing the cell membrane into the cytoplasm to reach target molecules.
“Many molecules can bind to the cell surface and enter the cell within endosomes, but they remain trapped in that membrane compartment,” he says. “If we could develop approaches to deliver these macromolecules … it would create new ways to treat cancer.”
Another question prompts researchers to explore the potential benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Randomized trials suggest that they help some smokers quit, notes David Hunter, ScD, of the University of Oxford, UK, but the risks remain unclear.
“We need independent research, free of conflicts of interest,” Hunter says. “We hope this challenge will empower international researchers to delve deeper into our understanding of e-cigarettes, from their pathophysiological impacts to the societal implications.”
The Cancer Grand Challenges program, announced in August, replaces CRUK's Grand Challenge initiative, which has awarded approximately $170 million to seven research teams since 2017. It also draws on the NCI's Provocative Questions program, which has awarded more than $400 million since 2012. Going forward, the NCI expects to fund Cancer Grand Challenges and Provocative Questions in alternating years.
“Joining together allowed NCI and Cancer Research UK to increase the scale of our collective investment, share experience from both organizations, and fund more global, multidisciplinary teams,” says Dinah S. Singer, PhD, of the NCI. “It made sense to pool our resources and skills to support one larger global initiative.” –Janet Colwell