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Global Leaders in Cancer Research Partner on Cancer Grand Challenges

, by Dr. Dinah S. Singer

Dr. Dinah S. Singer, NCI Deputy Director

Credit: National Cancer Institute

A week after the joint partnership event launching Cancer Grand Challenges, Dr. Dinah S. Singer is highlighting how the program will offer a new and innovative opportunity to further enhance NCI’s commitment to cancer research. Together NCI and CRUK expect to fund up to four awards for each round of Cancer Grand Challenges, with each multidisciplinary team being awarded approximately $25 million over five years.

On Thursday, August 27, NCI Director Ned Sharpless, M.D., and I reached across the Atlantic and joined hands with the leaders of Cancer Research UK to launch a new research partnership, Cancer Grand Challenges. The ambitious goal of the international initiative is to address some of the most profound, unresolved questions in cancer research. Through our partnership, we will support transformative cancer science with broad reach and lasting impact. 

In launching Cancer Grand Challenges, NCI and Cancer Research UK are seeking novel and compelling research ideas from multidisciplinary teams around the world. Together, we will fund research that offers the potential for bold advances in cancer science and can improve outcomes for people affected by cancer. Our partnership builds on the foundation of the existing Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge initiative, which currently funds seven international teams of cancer researchers across nine countries. 

Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity. My NCI colleagues and I watched with keen interest as Cancer Research UK developed and matured their Grand Challenge initiative. Because our missions of research and discovery, and of serving cancer patients, survivors, and those at risk of cancer are so closely aligned, it was only natural that Cancer Research UK and NCI join to launch the Cancer Grand Challenges partnership, which we announced late last month. Nearly 2000 participants joined the live event on August 27, 2020, and the event recording is now available on

Our interest in partnering with Cancer Research UK is also tied to NCI’s success with the Provocative Questions Program. For nearly a decade, Provocative Questions has turned to the research community to help NCI identify important cancer problems and paradoxes that have not been adequately explored. Through Provocative Questions, we learned how effective this method of engaging researchers can be to shape research questions. Cancer Grand Challenges uses a very similar approach to define compelling research opportunities. 

Image reads “Cancer Grand Challenges” with the Cancer Research UK logo and National Cancer Institute logo

Cancer Grand Challenges also has additional features that we believe offer a powerful framework for conducting cancer research.  These include:

  • giving global teams with successful applications the freedom and scale of funding to innovate and perform cutting-edge research
  • fostering international collaboration across teams of multidisciplinary researchers to solve profound cancer challenges
  • engaging with patients, gathering their insights and benefiting from their personal perspectives throughout the Cancer Grand Challenges process.

And, just like so many other programs where NCI invests research funding, Cancer Grand Challenges will stimulate scientific creativity of the highest caliber to advance fundamental biological knowledge and its clinical application to cancer. 

As Dr. Sharpless emphasized when we announced this joint venture, Cancer Grand Challenges will leverage the deep experience of both our organizations to expand the frontiers of knowledge and advance cancer research in ways not possible if we worked independently. 

NCI remains deeply committed to funding research driven by the ideas generated from individual scientists. Cancer Grand Challenges offers a new and innovative opportunity to further enhance our commitment to cancer research.

Funding and Timeline for Cancer Grand Challenges 

NCI and Cancer Research UK plan to jointly fund up to four awards in each round of Cancer Grand Challenges. Each international team will receive approximately $25 million over 5 years. 

We expect that our Cancer Grand Challenges partnership will support three rounds of awards, with a new round of challenges every other year. NCI plans to use funding that we currently allocate to our Provocative Questions initiative, so that each year we will alternate between funding new Provocative Questions awards and new Cancer Grand Challenges awards. 

The timeline for seeking Cancer Grand Challenges research proposals and issuing awards is as follows:

October 2020: NCI and Cancer Research UK release the list of challenges to the scientific community and encourage international research teams to organize and begin to frame research ideas in response to the challenges.

October 2020 through April 2021: NCI and Cancer Research UK invite initial expressions of interest from research teams in response to the list of challenges. 

June 2021: A small number of teams will be selected to receive pilot funds to further develop their ideas into larger, final team applications. 

Early 2022: Teams selected to receive Cancer Grand Challenges funding will be notified of their awards. 

We are very excited by our partnership with Cancer Research UK and the opportunities for bold and promising research that Cancer Grand Challenges offers. We eagerly look forward to the new ideas advanced by creative research teams from around the world.

More information is available on NCI’s Cancer Grand Challenges page and from our partners at Cancer Research UK.

A video replay of the August 27 NCI–Cancer Research UK ceremony announcing the Cancer Grand Challenges initiative is also available on the NCI’s Cancer Grand Challenges webpage.

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