Cancer Grand Challenges program awards $100 million to four research teams

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The National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, announced Thursday that four international research teams have been selected to receive a total of $100 million under the Cancer Grand Challenges program. Each team will receive $25 million over five years to tackle one of cancer’s toughest problems.

The NCI has partnered with Cancer Research UK in 2020 to launch the Cancer Grand Challenges programme, which aims to support investigations that have “the greatest potential to advance cancer research and improve outcomes for people affected by the cancer”. Its current plan (2021) calls for multiple rounds of funding to be made available to multidisciplinary research teams to study nine of the most challenging problems associated with cancer.

In the NCI press release, Douglas R. Lowy, MD, Acting Director of the NCI, said, “We are confident that these multidisciplinary teams of scientists – with the flexibility and scale to innovate and conduct research of cutting edge – will be able to address several critical cancer research issues that can advance the understanding of cancer and benefit patients.

“Cancer is a global problem that requires global collaboration. By investing in team science at this scale, we will bring new thinking to issues that have, for too long, stood in the way of progress,” added David Scott, Ph.D., director of Cancer Grand Challenges, Cancer Research UK. “Fundamentally, Cancer Grand Challenges gives multidisciplinary teams the time, space and freedom to innovate and advance the fight against cancer that the world urgently needs.

The four winning teams were chosen from a total of 169 research groups, from more than 60 countries, who had submitted preliminary proposals. This field was then narrowed down to eleven teams – chosen through an expert review process – who received seed funding to develop their initial ideas into full proposals.

The four funded teams – and the specific challenge each will take on – include:

1) The CANCAN team will explore cancer cachexia. Cachexia is a wasting syndrome that causes dramatic loss of weight and muscle mass. It occurs in advanced stages of many types of cancer and contributes to a large percentage of cancer deaths.

This team is led by Eileen White, Ph.D., Rutgers Institute of New Jersey; Marcus DaSilva Goncalves, MD, Ph.D., Weill Cornell Medicine, New York; and Tobias Janowitz, MD, Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.

2) The eDyNAmiC team will research the creation and action of extrachromosomal DNA, which helps tumors grow and escape treatment. High levels of extrachromosomal circular DNA are found in up to a third of human cancer cells, although its frequency varies among different tumor types. This team will also seek to develop new ways to target these mechanisms in cancer.

The team is led by Paul Mischel, MD, Stanford University. Other researchers include Vineet Bafna, Ph.D., professor of computer science and engineering, University of California, San Diego; Howard Chang, MD, Ph.D., Virginia and DK Ludwig Professor of Genomics and Cancer Genetics, Stanford University; Ben Cravatt, Ph.D., Professor and Gilula Chair in Chemical Biology, The Scripps Research Institute; and Roel Verhaak, Professor and Associate Director of Computational Biology, Florine Deschenes Roux Chair in Genomics and Computational Biology, The Jackson Laboratory.

3) The NextGen team will develop T cell therapies designed for childhood cancer. Although survival has increased for some childhood cancers, survival rates for some solid tumors have improved little over the past 30 years. This team intends to create new therapies for children with solid tumors, hoping that they can increase survival and reduce the lifelong toxicities often experienced by survivors.

The team is led by Catherine Bollard, MD, director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at Children’s National Research Institute, Washington, DC; and Martin Pule, University College London.

The PROMINENT team will study what causes normal cells to become cancerous. They will explore what keeps normal cells healthy and how carcinogens and other mutation-forming factors help turn a normal cell into a tumor cell.

The team will be led by Allan Balmain, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco; Paul Brennan, Ph.D., International Agency for Research on Cancer; and Núria López Bigas, Ph.D., Barcelona Biomedicine Research Institute.

The next funding rounds of the NCI-Cancer Research UK partnership are scheduled for 2023 and 2025.

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