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NCI, Cancer Research UK launch Cancer Grand Challenges partnership to support bold new ideas for cancer research

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NCI Press Office


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

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, will partner with Cancer Research UK to fund Cancer Grand Challenges, an international initiative to address profound and unanswered questions in cancer research. Through Cancer Grand Challenges, NCI and Cancer Research UK will seek novel ideas from multidisciplinary research teams from around the world that offer the potential to make bold advances in cancer research and improve outcomes for people affected by cancer. 

The new partnership builds on Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge initiative, which is currently funding seven international teams of researchers across nine countries. Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity. Cancer Grand Challenges will foster a highly competitive process designed to stimulate scientific creativity of the highest order.

“This new partnership leverages the expertise of the world’s leading funders of cancer research in a bold effort to identify and pursue innovative ideas that address major challenges in understanding cancer,” said NCI Director Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, M.D. “We’re thrilled to join Cancer Research UK in this unique collaboration to support novel cancer research on a global scale.”

The goals of the partnership include identifying important cancer research opportunities; facilitating global collaboration among multidisciplinary researchers to solve these challenges; giving the global teams the freedom and scale to innovate and carry out cutting-edge research; and further advancing fundamental biological knowledge and its clinical application to cancer. To gain essential perspectives from people affected by cancer, a patient committee will offer input and ideas throughout the Cancer Grand Challenges process.

NCI and Cancer Research UK plan to announce the list of new challenges in October 2020. Expressions of interest from research teams for the new challenges are expected to be accepted from October 2020 through April 2021. From these, a small number of teams will be selected to receive pilot funds to further develop their ideas into larger, final applications. Those selected to receive funding will be notified in June 2021, and the awards to final teams will be announced in 2022. 

NCI and Cancer Research UK expect to co-fund approximately four awards for each round of Cancer Grand Challenges, with each multidisciplinary team being awarded approximately $25 million over five years. NCI anticipates that the Cancer Grand Challenges partnership will support three rounds of awards, with a new round of challenges announced every other year. NCI plans to use annual funding currently set aside for the Provocative Questions (PQ) initiative, and anticipates funding PQ awards and Cancer Grand Challenges awards in alternating years. 

The process to determine the Cancer Grand Challenges is conducted through a series of international workshops to receive input from thought leaders from the cancer research community and people affected by cancer. The most compelling ideas generated from these workshops are then reviewed and the final challenges selected. 

Cancer Research UK launched the Grand Challenge initiative in 2015 and has overseen two rounds of Grand Challenge awards to date. These awards are currently funding teams focusing on identifying preventable causes of cancer; creating virtual reality maps of tumors; preventing unnecessary breast cancer treatment; studying tumor metabolism from every angle; understanding why cancers grow in some tissues and not in others; finding new ways to tackle inflammation-associated cancer; and manipulating the microbiome to beat bowel cancer.

“Many of the ongoing Grand Challenge awards align with NCI research priorities, and our missions overlap in many ways,” said Dinah S. Singer, Ph.D., NCI deputy director for scientific strategy and development. “This initiative will expand opportunities to identify new challenges based on insights from the cancer research community and to further our understanding of cancer. We’re looking forward to the new ideas proposed by creative teams from around the world.”

To learn more, see the NCI Cancer Grand Challenges webpage and the Cancer Research UK Cancer Grand Challenges webpage.


About the National Cancer Institute (NCI): NCI leads the National Cancer Program and NIH’s efforts to dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer and improve the lives of cancer patients and their families, through research into prevention and cancer biology, the development of new interventions, and the training and mentoring of new researchers. For more information about cancer, please visit the NCI website at or call NCI’s contact center, the Cancer Information Service, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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