Cancer, Scientific, UK Biotech

Microbiome, inflammation and mutations: US researchers win £60M in Cancer Research UK grants to lead ‘grand challenges’

Cancer Research UK is putting leading US researchers as the faces of its latest Grand Challenge — five-year research programs that each draw from £20 million ($25.9 million) in funding and an international group of scientists to tackle some of the biggest questions in cancer.

Selected from 134 applications in the second installment of the competition, the three projects will attempt to manipulate the microbiome to fight bowel cancer, explore the links between chronic inflammation and cancer, and understand why certain genetic mutations cause cancer in some tissues but not others.

Scientists from Harvard, UCSF and Brigham and Women’s Hospital will lead the charge, coordinating teams of 10 or 14 scattered between the US, UK, Canada, The Netherlands, Spain, and Israel.

Matthew Meyerson

“Individually, these research teams are among the best in the world in their respective fields,” said Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, in a statement. “By bringing them together across borders, Grand Challenge is enabling these teams to think bigger and establish new and exciting collaborations. The scale of the funding reflects the opportunity we see in harnessing their ability to understand and tackle cancer.”

Wendy Garrett

Matthew Meyerson at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School is co-principal investigator with Wendy Garrett at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on the microbiome project. By comparing in detail a healthy microbiome with one associated with cancer, they hope to identify new interventions to prevent and treat cancer — whether by improving response to therapies or being fashioned into therapies of their own — that they will take into clinical trials.

Thea Tlsty

In another project, UCSF’s Thea Tlsty wants to tune into what she calls “the other side” of the conversation between cancer cells and the cells surrounding them, with the ultimate goal to “devise exciting new approaches to treatment from repurposing everyday anti-inflammatory drugs, to designing cells that target cancer-promoting tissues.”

Finally, Stephen Elledge — a professor at Harvard Medical School and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — describes his challenge this way:

Stephen Elledge

We think the reason that specific genetic defects cause certain types of cancer comes down to the way different cell types are ‘wired’, and whether the tissue sees it as a ‘GO’ signal or not. We’re going to deconstruct what’s going on by switching cancer genes on and off and tracking the changes in normal, healthy cells from different organs. This will deepen our understanding of the very nature of cancer, and by using cutting-edge technologies like organoids, we hope to find new targets for cancer treatments in future.

The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research in New York is providing half of the grant — £10 million to this particular project.

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