By Ian Walker, Director of Clinical, Population and Early Detection Research, Cancer Research UK

Published 18 September 2018

Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK's Director of Clinical, Population and Early Detection Research, shares how the charity works in close partnership with universities to deliver its research strategy.

At Cancer Research UK, we set ourselves an ambitious mission to accelerate research. Currently 1 in 2 patients survive cancer. We want to see that reach 3 in 4 by 2034, while also preventing more cancers. 

It’s very clear to us that such bold ambitions can only be achieved through partnerships — with national and international funders, with the research community, and with the academic and clinical institutions where most of our research happens. Around a third of our annual research spend is through grants directly to investigators at universities, hospitals and research institutes around the UK, and a similar proportion goes to creating the right local and national environment for research across the country.

Investing in the research environment

The UK needs a dynamic and responsive research environment in which our world-class scientists and clinicians can thrive, enabling the generation of bold research ideas which we hope will eventually translate into benefits for patients. At CRUK, we work closely with university partners around the UK to ensure the cancer research community has the support it needs in terms of research capabilities, leadership, training and collaboration.

Key to this, at the heart of our strategy, is a network of CRUK research centres which provide focus and driving force for translational cancer research at 13 locations around the country. Our centres network helps to bring together universities, hospitals and other organisations involved in research to create the thriving community and a critical mass of exciting, world-leading research at these locations.

Universities are true partners in this network, and success of the network has driven a strong national platform which facilitates research collaborations across the member locations, but also drives the partnership directly with CRUK.

This network enables us to work together in identifying shared research priorities and the power of the network is that collectively we have strengths and expertise across a wide range of disciplines and research areas.

Collaborating on our shared strengths

One example that demonstrates the strategic importance of collaboration within the network is in our focus on the field of early detection. Early detection has the potential to have a huge impact for patients, saving lives and sparing people from treatments with harsh side-effects. But as a research field, it has historically lacked a focus and coherent community.

Fortunately, this strategic priority aligned with some of the key strengths and ambitions of the University of Cambridge, the University of Manchester and Barts and The London School of Medicine. Through collaboration with Cambridge, Manchester and Barts, we’ve built exciting early detection programmes for these centres.

In Cambridge, for example, the centre acts as a hub, bringing together diverse perspectives from different university departments, including technology, engineering and physical sciences. It also provides an interface between the university's researchers and the local healthcare and biotech industry partners who are able to work alongside them translating scientific discoveries into new practices and technologies.

Cambridge has used its Centre funding to invest in core shared facilities to underpin research (such as imaging technology and diagnostic labs), in PhD and clinical research training programmes, and in seed funding to enable scientists to build ambitious programmes and be in a competitive position to bid for their own funding. 

Building the network together

Our 13 centres do not operate in isolation, but work together as a network to build collaborative working between the UK's top cancer research locations. My colleagues and I work closely with our partners to understand the community's needs and opportunities to strengthen connections between centres, and this year we've been focussed on opportunities where we can facilitate the involvement of centres in international collaboration.

By teaming up with the major charitable funders of cancer research in Italy and in Spain we've strengthened multicentre collaborations between our centres and their International counterparts. We created a new "Accelerator Award" scheme to provide additional funding to these collaborations, which our awarded teams will use to produce new research tools, resources and platforms to share with the community.

The Centres network also works closely with other national networks, such as the Experimental Cancer Medicines Centres (ECMCs), which are clinical sites with expertise in delivering early phase clinical trials. These collaborative platforms provide a foundation for multicentre research, encompassing a range of expertise and breadth of thinking which is critical in driving innovation and team science. 

A strategic approach to partnerships

Our centres are just one example of the many ways that we partner with like-minded organisations across the academic, not-for-profit, government and private sectors to accelerate progress in the fight against cancer. Cancer is a global disease, and innovation in science needs teams comprising many different skills, which makes partnership central to achieving our mission. Key to the success of those partnerships, is that they are mutually beneficial and have clear alignment of priorities, which allows us to deliver true value for everyone involved.

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