By Lynn Turner, Director of Research at Worldwide Cancer Research 

Published: 2 March 2018

‘Partnership’ seems to be the current buzzword in the research funding community.  Whether it be a partnership with industry or a partnership with another research charity – partnerships are being talked about everywhere. 

And why not?  Funding is tight.  Combining resources to maximise the number of high quality research projects being funded seems like a no-brainer.  And we also hear comments from our supporters such as ‘why are there so many cancer research charities’ and ‘why don’t we work together more’. And in some aspects they are right. This is why, as a global charity supporting research all over the world, we wanted to start looking at how we could collaborate more effectively.

Our CEO, Helen Rippon, was lucky enough to attend a ‘Partnering for Cures’ meeting, run by FasterCures[i] in New York in November 2016 as part of the AMRC delegation.  The meeting aimed to bring together biomedical research leaders to partner and collaborate, to accelerate medical research and ultimately bring cures to patients sooner. Helen came back from New York inspired, and with an address book full of contacts.

Following up with these contacts led to some very interesting discussions. Some were purely information sharing, finding out about each other’s organisations, comparing practices and processes and finding out about the other country’s cancer research landscape.  Other discussions led to agreements to share information with our network of current and past grantholders.  Worldwide Cancer Research has funded over 1800 grants in 34 different countries, so our network is extensive and this network is something we can offer to partners. And a few of the discussions developed into serious negotiations about partnerships and co-funding.

This is how the partnership with The Brain Tumour Charity (TBTC) came about.  Our first discussion took place with David Jenkinson, Chief Scientific Officer at TBTC, at the end of January 2017 and the final co-funding agreement was signed in November.  In between there were lots of obstacles we had to navigate together:

  • Do our research strategies align? Would TBTC be happy to fund a research project outside of the UK?
  • Did we receive enough high-quality brain tumour applications in our grant round to make it an attractive proposition? (We received 55 applications out of our total of 759)
  • How would the peer review and selection process of applications be managed?
  • What would need to be included in our confidentiality agreements and the final co-funding Memorandum of Understanding?
  • What would the funding balance be? A 50:50 split? 60:40? How would this impact contracts and ownership?

After 10 months of negotiations we can safely say it was worth all the hard work as two new exciting brain tumour research projects have been funded as a result of the partnership.  Without this partnership we would only have been able to fund one of these projects. 

The partnership with Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF) came about very differently. I’ve read a lot about scientific serendipity, like the 1928 discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, but now I’d like to make a case for ‘partnership serendipity’. 

One of the things we always say at Worldwide Cancer Research is that ‘we are all fundraisers’.  You never know where that chance encounter, that fleeting conversation will lead.  And our partnership with PCRF is a case in point.

Over the last year I had been at a couple of meetings where I had some great conversations with Maggie Blanks, CEO and Founder of PCRF. So when I spotted that one of the projects that our advisory committee had recommended for funding had also been submitted to PCRF, I picked up the phone and called Maggie. Partnership serendipity!

PCRF were at an earlier stage of their review process, when we had our first discussion. But their external peer review comments on the application were looking good so Maggie was interested in talking about a potential partnership. There were similar hurdles to clear as with the partnership with TBTC, but their advisory committee highly rated the application and with further discussion about the advantages of combining forces and a clear and simple MOU, we were all happy to proceed. 

This partnership not only led to the funding of a research project into a devastating and underfunded type of cancer, but it has freed up some of our funding to allow us to award a grant to another project. 

We are continuing discussions with other potential partners and I am still on the lookout for more partnership opportunities. I will be at the AMRC Patients First meeting in March so if any of you have any great ideas, or just want to talk more about how our partnerships work, please come and find me!

It is great to look back on 2017 and know that these partnerships mean that two additional projects were able to be funded. That’s more cutting edge cancer research helping us find and develop better, more effective treatments.

[i] n American think tank and a centre of the Milken Institute