A multidisciplinary, international team of scientists including those from Baylor College of Medicine has been awarded Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge, an ambitious series of £20 million global grants tackling some of the toughest questions in cancer research.

“We’re grateful to the Grand Challenge initiative and Cancer Research UK for enabling us to bring together experts from across the globe to overcome some of the biggest obstacles facing cancer research and treatment,” said Dr. Trey Westbrook, professor in the Departments of Molecular and Human Genetics and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, McNair Scholar, and co-director of the Therapeutic Innovation Center (THINC) at Baylor.

The Grand Challenge award aims to revolutionize how cancer is diagnosed, prevented and treated by providing international multidisciplinary teams the freedom to try novel approaches, at scale, in the pursuit of life-changing discoveries. Other institutions involved in this project are Harvard Medical School, New York University School of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Hubrecht Institute, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.

“The Grand Challenge award will allow us to study and map the epigenetic vulnerabilities that arise during development that could contribute to tumor formation down the road,” said Dr. Stephen Elledge, adjunct professor of biochemistry at Baylor and primary investigator on the award. “Tumorigenesis is highly tissue-specific, and we want to learn more about why mutations may be present in some tumors, but completely absent in others, in order to better deliver therapies to patients.”

The project, called SPECIFICANCER, will create tissue-specific datasets that will identify the genes driving tumor proliferation and survival in eight cell types from seven different organs with the goal of uncovering novel targets that help inform why some cancers are resistant to therapies and identify which patients will respond best.

“The aspiration of this project is to create the first ever ‘decision maps’ of tumors. Just like people respond differently to their environments, tumors also vary in their decisions, like whether to grow aggressively or whether to respond to a given therapy,” said Westbrook, who also directs the cell-based assay screening shared resource in the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor. “This program will elucidate how tumors make these decisions and create maps that can predict their behavior in patients. Ultimately, by learning how to predict how tumors make their decisions, these maps will lay the foundation for developing the next generation of cancer therapies.”

The Baylor team will now join a growing community of researchers in the Grand Challenge, which first launched in 2015 and already includes four international teams announced in 2017.

Dr. Edward Harlow, member of the Grand Challenge advisory panel and professor of cancer education and research at Harvard Medical School, said, “I’m not aware of any funding opportunities anywhere in the world that can begin to integrate this many international cancer experts on projects of such clear importance. These teams have been brought together to tackle many of the biggest challenges we currently face in cancer research. We can see from the progress already achieved how powerful it is to support collaborations of this scale.”

“Individually, these research teams are among the best in the world in their respective fields. 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,” added Dr. Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation.

This project is supported in partnership with the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, based in New York, which is providing £10 million to the project.