The Medical Research Council (MRC) is investing £2 million to help researchers understand and treat cancers with exceptionally poor survival rates, including of the brain, lung and oesophagus.

Four research innovation teams will each receive £500k to work across disciplines on high-risk, high-reward projects towards improving outcomes of hard-to-treat cancers.

The projects were selected following a two-day ‘sandpit’ event designed to promote new conversations and create teams of researchers across scientific disciplines from clinical, biomedical, engineering, physical and data sciences.

The teams co-developed innovative ideas and solutions to advance cancer research including for prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Funded projects

The group projects will be led by:

Lauren Ford at Imperial College London to develop techniques for the precision removal of brain cancer cells using a laser. This technique could reduce the impact of treatment on normal cells as well as provide real-time data on the nature of the cancer, which can then be used to inform post-operative treatment.

Ben Newland at Cardiff University to research the use of a cryogel placed at the brain tumour removal site. The cryogel will deliver drugs directly to the site, overcoming the blood-brain barrier and reducing the effects of drugs on non-targeted areas. This project will be joint funded with Brain Tumour Research, the first such partnership between the MRC and the charity.

Tim Witney at Kings College London will take forward research on using artificial intelligence to read lung scans and more accurately predict whether a cancer is resistant to treatment. This data will then be used to create targeted drugs that selectively kill treatment-resistant cancer cells.

Sara Valpione at the University of Manchester and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust will explore ways to optimise engineered nanoparticle therapeutics for oesophageal cancer. Researchers hope to target cells that hinder effectiveness of medicines that boost the immune system against cancer.

Dr Megan Dowie, Head of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at the MRC, part of UKRI, said: “We look forward to supporting the teams towards achieving real-world impacts, both in a clinical setting and the real hope they may ultimately be able to offer to those suffering from some of the most challenging cancer diagnoses.

“We were inspired by the success of the sandpit event. The many new interdisciplinary connections formed over the two-days will have a lasting legacy of future collaboration of life and physical sciences researchers. This will help achieve the step change we need to address hard-to-treat cancers with potential for translation to other types of cancer too.”

Pump-priming grants

Additionally, two projects have been awarded a £50k pump-priming grant to generate preliminary data.

The funding will allow these teams to further the ideas developed at the sandpit for possible future funding.

Ljiljana Fruk at the University of Cambridge will develop engineered bacteria that can produce stroma reprogramming compounds and be activated and imaged by ultrasound. It is hoped these bacteria could be used to change the tumour environment – rather than kill cancer cells – potentially avoiding the need for highly toxic traditional cancer drugs and the development of drug resistance in patients.

Philippe Wilson at Nottingham Trent University will develop a proof-of-concept lateral flow test for the early detection of brain tumour recurrence, suitable for future patient self-administration.