Thinking differently to drive innovation in cancer research

By Jenni Lacey, Senior Communications and Marketing Manager, Cancer Research UK

At Cancer Research UK, we invest over £350 million each year on high-calibre cancer research which we believe has the potential to provide the greatest benefit to the public and cancer patients.

We are always looking for novel ways to spark and fund creative ideas, and encourage fresh thinking. That’s why we’ve developed new ways of supporting research and stimulating innovation. We have funding schemes that are open to researchers from all backgrounds, including biochemists, and those not currently working in cancer research.

The Pioneer Award: funding revolutionary ideas faster


Our Pioneer Award is open to researchers from any field and at any stage in their career – from postdoctoral researchers to professors.

The scheme was developed to fund high-risk, high-reward projects that might not be supported through other routes. And we’re keen to see a broad range of projects from biochemistry to software development.

The Pioneer Award is unique in a number of ways. For a start, the initial application is just two pages long, rather than a conventional lengthy form. All applications are anonymised, removing any unwitting bias. Finally, applicants are invited to pitch their idea in a ‘Dragon’s Den’-style presentation, to experts drawn from a range of scientific and technology backgrounds, to convince them that their idea is worth a shot. It’s a fast process, from initial application to receiving funding can be as little as four months, with proposals being considered three times a year.

Exploiting ‘designer’ proteins to build a new drug discovery platform

The Pioneer Award scheme has been running since June 2015 and we’ve already funded projects ranging from exploring whether a drink containing oxygen nanobubbles could improve efficacy of cancer treatments, to asking whether artificial intelligence could help with surgical decision-making.

Professor Laura Itzhaki

In May 2016 we funded Laura Itzhaki, Professor of Structural Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge, who is exploring a novel approach for targeting intracellular proteins and protein-protein interactions.

To exploit this relatively untapped area of cancer drug discovery, Laura is developing a protein-based therapeutic approach to tag cancer-driving intracellular proteins for destruction via the cell’s natural degradation machineries.

A new sensor system for early detection

Dr John Fossey

This year, we funded Dr John Fossey, based at the University of Birmingham, who, along with the team he assembled, will use the funding to try and unlock early detection potential from novel single molecule chemosensors. They hope to develop a protocol that is translatable to numerous saccharide-containing biomarkers that currently lack robust early diagnosis strategies.

Only very subtle differences exist between oligosaccharide biomarkers of healthy or disease state and so this novel biomarker detection strategy represents an untapped but challenging opportunity. This project aims to develop proof-of-principle by discovering and scaling up the production of a new small molecule saccharide-containing markers, which could then be deployed as a platform for construction of other diagnostic receptors across a number of cancer types.

Embedding innovation: from sandpit workshops to multimillion pound awards

In addition to the Pioneer Award, we have a host of funding opportunities to support innovation on different scales and targeting different disciplines.

In population research, we’ve hosted a series of three-day sandpits, known as Innovation Workshops, aimed at identifying new ways to prevent cancer and diagnose it earlier. These workshops bring together participants from different disciplines to explore cancer challenges in population research, build new collaborations and encourage participants to ‘think outside the box’ to develop a pitch for a research project that’s potentially funded on the spot.

At the other end of the spectrum our £20 million Grand Challenge awards seek international, multidisciplinary teams willing to take on the toughest challenges in cancer – providing the freedom to try novel approaches, at scale, in the pursuit of life changing discoveries.

We believe that innovation is essential to generate new solutions so whether you’ve worked in cancer before or you’re completely new to the field, we want to hear your ideas.

Find out more about our Pioneer Awards on our website.

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