FEATURE INTERVIEW: Dr Keith Blundy in conversation with Dr Iain Foulkes
In April 2014 Cancer Research UK (CRUK) launched its new research strategy Beating Cancer Sooner. This strategy sets out an ambitious agenda to accelerate progress and see 3 in 4 people surviving their cancer within the next 20 years.
Over the last five years, the charity has invested more than $2.5 billion in cancer research. Looking forward, Cancer Research UK will substantially increase its funding in existing areas, as well as establishing important new areas of research. In addition to increasing overall spend, Cancer Research UK is seeking to develop effective partnerships with all sectors, to encourage collaborative approaches and ensure cancer is tackled on the global stage.
We’ve invited Dr Keith Blundy, chief executive of Cancer Research Technology (CRT), the development and commercialisation arm of Cancer Research UK, to discuss the new strategy with Dr Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of strategy and research funding.
Iain, under the new strategy there remains a commitment to basic science but what are Cancer Research UK’s other key priorities?
We will continue to invest heavily in understanding cancer at a deep biological level. This underpins almost everything we do, and we will continue to invest a significant proportion of our overall budget to strengthen this area, including through the establishment of The Francis Crick Institute.
- The Francis Crick Institute Cancer Research UK is proud to be a founding partner of this world-class centre for interdisciplinary medical sciences. At 3.6 acres, The Francis Crick Institute will be Europe’s largest building dedicated to research. Due to open in 2015, it will have the vision, scale and expertise to tackle challenging scientific questions underpinning health and disease, including cancer, heart disease and stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.
However it is an absolute driver of the organisation to accelerate the translation of that understanding into patient and population benefit. This is a key focus of the new strategy – it’s about putting the patient very much front of mind in whatever we invest in.
So where will we see the biggest investment shifts?
One of the biggest shifts is around early diagnosis of cancer. We will drive a major research effort by investing over $40 million a year in this area by 2019, as we believe it offers significant impact in terms of lives saved. Achieving a stage shift in the point at which a number of cancers are detected, followed by new or even existing treatment plans, will have a huge impact on patient outcomes.
We also want to increase investment in areas where we’ve seen little progress on mortality and survival over the past decades — the cancers of unmet need. Our ambition is to increase our investment two- to threefold over the next five years in lung, pancreatic, oesophageal cancers and brain tumours.
Many of the headlines from this year’s ASCO conference focused on immunotherapies. Will there be an increased emphasis on targeting the immune system in the context of cancer?
Yes we think we’ve only scratched the surface with regards to our understanding of the biology underpinning the interaction between the immune system and cancer, so there will be an increased focus on this area. Clearly there remains an ongoing commitment to continue to discover and develop new therapeutics, surgery and radiotherapy treatments, including a deliberate increased investment in biological therapies.
Precision medicine is also increasingly seen as the future of cancer therapy. Will this become a reality under the new strategy?
We will have an absolute focus on the principles of personalisation and stratification. We’ll be providing the required infrastructure through our Centres network. Supported in partnership with the university and NHS in each location, our Centres provide a vital route to support the delivery of our strategy.
- Lung Cancer Centres of Excellence Cancer Research UK will establish Lung Cancer Centres of Excellence to build the capacity and quality of lung cancer research in the UK. These Centres will recruit leaders to build on existing strengths and develop state-of-the-art technology in lung cancer research.
- TRACERx study TRACERx is a major study which will transform our understanding of lung cancer and take a practical step towards an era of precision medicine. This novel study will uncover mechanisms of temporal evolution by analysing the intra-tumour heterogeneity of more than 850 lung cancer patients throughout their treatment.
What role do you think the Cancer Research UK network, and the wider UK research environment, will play in the realisation of the charity’s ambitions?
As the UK’s single largest funder of cancer research, we have excellent researchers based in an academic network of world-leading universities. We also support our five core-funded institutes, enabling them to take a long-term approach to addressing the challenges in cancer. And as I previously mentioned, we invest heavily in our Centres, which provide an excellent environment for effective translation.
Through this approach we are genuinely trying to develop a functional and effective national cancer research network by bringing together different skills sets, expertise and capabilities.
We’re confident that the UK will continue to ‘punch above its weight’ with regards to the quality, diversity and output of the science base in this country, and all of this is against the backdrop of a single national health system. This environment provides an excellent platform for making progress. There are things we can do here that can’t be done readily elsewhere. This is a great place to come and do business.
I agree, and what’s exciting for industry is that working with CRT provides access to this network through a single portal.
Absolutely. CRT is well positioned to form mutually beneficial collaborations and alliances that support key areas of focus within our research strategy.
CRUK currently works effectively in partnership with the biopharmaceutical industry across a number of areas. How is the new strategy going to shape CRUK’s interactions with industry in the future?
We know that cancer research requires effective partnerships to deliver the greatest impact for patients, which is why ‘Partnership’ is one of three key principles under the new strategy. We are inviting industry to come to us. If a company has ideas or ways in which they want to work with us, then we want to talk to them.
This certainly reflects CRT’s approach to partnership models. We’re open to ideas and will have a conversation about any structure, model, area of science.
Yes, we are actively seeking new opportunities to enhance collaboration in areas that offer the greatest potential. As the innovative alliance models CRT has put in place with industry partners demonstrate, this increasingly means building strategic partnerships that extend beyond individual projects and assets.
- The Early Diagnosis Consortium (EDC) In 2013, CRUK and CRT joined forces with Abcodia, the biomarker validation company with a focus on cancer screening, to develop new blood tests to detect a range of cancers when they are still at a very early stage. The partnership combines Cancer Research UK’s extensive clinical oncology and scientific network with Abcodia’s expertise in the longitudinal profiling of biomarkers, as well as its exclusive access to one of the world’s largest prospective collections of serum samples available for biomarker research.
On that basis, what ideas would you like to see from industry?
For me, a genuinely open discussion about how we can work together to accelerate progress in research and ensure that cancer is tackled on the global stage.
CRT is certainly already seeing some really exciting things in this space and I believe there is a desire from industry to do more.
I agree, it’s now about working together to understand how we can make this happen. CRUK will soon be launching ‘grand challenge’ funding to tackle the big questions in cancer research. We want to stimulate a greater focus on tackling important, challenging questions where there is potential for a transformational impact on the field. We will invite applications from consortia with the appropriate mix of skills to address these challenges; we anticipate that some of these awards may involve international collaborators as well as scientists working in commercial organisations.
So finally Iain, what excites you most about the new strategy?
We’re taking an ambitious direction and have put clear markers in place to evaluate our progress. We are most excited to work together with the community to realise the new strategy. We are confident that together we can and will transform the outlook for cancer patients.