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Two multi-disciplinary teams of scientists from the University of Birmingham have been shortlisted for the final stages of Cancer Research UK's global Grand Challenge – an ambitious series of £20m cancer grants tackling some of the toughest questions in cancer research.

DNA strand and amplified cancer cell

Professor Alan Rickinson’s team are working to transform treatment for Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) associated cancers, and develop a vaccine to protect against EBV infection in the first instance. His team includes colleagues from the USA, Netherlands, UK, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Japan and China.

Professor Roy Bicknell’s team are looking to develop a vaccination that would block the earliest onset of tumour growth by inhibiting a key step to halt the spread of cancerous cells. His team includes colleagues from the USA, UK, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.

The teams will now receive seed-funding to draft their full research proposal, and the winning proposal from the nine entries will be announced in autumn 2016.

Prof Rickinson said “EBV is linked to 200,000 cases of cancer each year. The University of Birmingham has been a major centre of EBV research for over 25 years”.

Fellow team member Dr Graham Taylor said “We’re looking to attack EBV-associated cancer on two fronts. Discovering and testing new treatments to help existing patients and, at the same time, developing a vaccine that will prevent EBV infection occurring in the first place.”

Professor Bicknell explained, “Vaccinations have been one of the major success stories of the past 150 years, by combatting infectious diseases such as polio and smallpox. The ultimate challenge would be to create a vaccination that protects individuals against the development of cancer. Cancers need a blood supply to develop, and they do this through a process called angiogenesis – the creation of new blood vessels. Our team is looking to see how we might be able to prevent cancerous cells from being able to create new blood vessels.”

The Grand Challenge award aims to revolutionise how we diagnose, prevent and treat cancer by uniting teams of the best scientists around the world to come up with answers to crucial questions about how to save more lives from cancer.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said, “The calibre of applications for our Grand Challenge is evidence of the remarkable global talent working in cancer research. It’s inspiring to see scientists of all disciplines and nations unite in the fight against the disease.”

Dr Rick Klausner, chair of the Grand Challenge advisory panel, said, “With so many exceptional teams proposing novel approaches, it was no easy task to pick our shortlist, but we’re delighted with the teams we’ve selected and look forward to hearing more about their plans to beat the toughest questions in cancer. At least one of these teams will be awarded the first ever Grand Challenge award later this year.”