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Cancer Grand Challenges

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Cancer Research UK, the world’s leading funders of cancer research, partnered to launch the Cancer Grand Challenges program in 2020. Cancer Grand Challenges aims to provide multiple rounds of funding for interdisciplinary research teams from around whose novel ideas offer the greatest potential to advance bold cancer research and improve outcomes for people affected by cancer.

View the NCI Other Transaction Award Policy Guide on the Cancer Grand Challenges to learn about the NIH funding mechanism that is being used for this initiative.

2023 Cancer Grand Challenges

The five winning teams were selected from 176 interdisciplinary, global teams that submitted bold ideas to take on nine new challenges announced by Cancer Grand Challenges in March 2023. The Cancer Grand Challenges scientific committee, with assistance from a patient committee, reviewed and recommended a list of finalists to Cancer Research UK. NCI and Cancer Research UK further considered the innovative ideas and selected a shortlist of 12 teams that received seed funding to develop their ideas into full proposals.

The funded teams, announced in March 2024, will each receive approximately $25 million over five years, giving these interdisciplinary teams of scientists the flexibility and scale to innovate and carry out cutting-edge research on their Cancer Grand Challenge topic.

The 2023 winning teams and challenges are:

  • Early-onset cancers: Early-onset colorectal cancer—defined as colorectal cancer arising in individuals younger than 50 years—is an emerging global concern. Team PROSPECT aims to address this challenge by understanding the pathways, risk factors, and molecules involved in the development of the disease. Their vision is to understand and ultimately try to reverse the network of causal factors throughout the life course that disrupts normal biological processes to promote early-onset colorectal cancer. The team is led by Andrew Chan, M.D., M.P.H., Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and Yin Cao, Sc.D., M.P.H., Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Cancer inequities: Inequities in cancer prevention, screening, and treatment lead to disparities in cancer incidence and mortality and are a major public health concern. Team SAMBAI aims to build an unprecedented resource that will comprise a comprehensive measurement of social, environmental, genetic, and biological factors in selected populations. This resource can be used to help define the causes of disparate outcomes in these populations. The team will focus on prostate, breast, and pancreatic cancers in the the global African diaspora. The team is led by Melissa Davis, Ph.D., Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta.
  • Solid tumors in children: Cancer remains a leading cause of death due to disease among children globally, and outcomes for some childhood cancers have not improved in more than 30 years. Treatments for solid tumors in children still rely on decades-old chemotherapies and often radiation therapy. Two teams will take on this challenge. The teams will use protein degradation strategies to target previously undruggable drivers of children's cancers. A drug or drugs that could emerge from these programs could revolutionize the field and transform the lives of children with solid tumors.
    • Team PROTECT is led by Stefan Pfister, M.D., Hopp Children's Cancer Center Heidelberg, Germany.
    • Team KOODAC is led by Martin Eilers, Ph.D., University of Wurzburg, Germany, and Yael Mosse, M.D., Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
  • T-cell receptors: T cells are central players in the immune response, and the development of immunotherapies is transforming the treatment landscape for some cancers. Yet, their effects are not universal across cancer types and patients. Understanding how T-cell receptors recognize antigens is critical if the full potential of antigen-specific immunotherapy is to be realized. Team MATCHMAKERS aims to predict what T cells recognize in a patient's tumor. Insights gained could have implications beyond cancer—for example, in infectious disease, autoimmunity, and allergy. The team is led by Michael Birnbaum, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

Learn more about this round of Cancer Grand Challenges, the challenge-setting process, and currently funded teams at the Cancer Grand Challenges program website.

2021 Cancer Grand Challenges

NCI and Cancer Research UK received expressions of interest (EOI) submissions from 169 diverse teams, spanning more than 60 countries, applying for the nine open challenges. The scientific committee narrowed the innovative ideas to a shortlist of 11 teams, and these teams received seed funding to develop their ideas into full proposals.

From the shortlisted teams, four teams are each receiving approximately $25 million over five years to carry out their Cancer Grand Challenge topic. 

The 2021 winning teams and challenges are:

  • The CANCAN team is exploring cancer cachexia as a tumor-driven syndrome. Cachexia is a debilitating muscle wasting syndrome that dramatically affects quality of life and survival for many people with advanced cancer. The team is led by Eileen White, Ph.D., Rutgers Institute of New Jersey; Marcus DaSilva Goncalves, M.D., Ph.D., Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City; and Tobias Janowitz, M.D., Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.
  • The eDyNAmiC team seeks to understand the creation and action of extrachromosomal DNA (ecDNA), which helps tumors evolve and evade treatment. They are also developing new ways to target these mechanisms in cancer. The team is led by Paul Mischel, M.D., Stanford University.
  • The NexTGen team is working to develop engineered T-cell therapies for childhood cancer. They are also exploring whether changing the tumor microenvironment can help make treatments more effective. The team is led by Catherine Bollard, M.D., Children's National Hospital, Washington, D.C.; and Martin Pule, University College London.
  • The PROMINENT team aims to discover what triggers normal cells to become cancerous to inform prevention. They are exploring how carcinogens and other mutation-forming factors help turn a normal cell into a tumor cell. The team is led by Allen Balmain, Ph.D., University of California San Francisco; Paul Brennan, Ph.D., International Agency for Research on Cancer; and Núria López Bigas, Ph.D., Institute for Research in Biomedicine Barcelona.

Related Resources

NCI and Cancer Research UK Cancer Grand Challenges Partnership