OPTIMISTICC: VHIO awarded Grand Challenge funding from CRUK to tackle cancer’s biggest questions


Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director, has been announced by Cancer Research UK as a member of a global research team funded through its Grand Challenge competition – an international funding initiative that aims to answer some of the biggest questions facing cancer research*.

Grand Challenge brings together the brightest scientists from around the world and from different disciplines to find solutions to cancer’s toughest challenges and save more lives. It’s open to all scientists to bring innovative, international, and collaborative approaches to research.

This pioneering team has been awarded up to $25 million to unpick the role the microbiome plays in colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer was estimated to be the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the U.S. in 2018, and in recent years there has been a rise in the number of cases seen in younger adults**.

There are many lifestyle factors that influence people’s risk of developing the disease. Researchers are discovering that the impact of these factors, such as diet and obesity, on the microbiome may play an important role in colorectal cancer development.

Matthew Meyerson at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, and Wendy Garrett at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health will lead the OPTIMISTICC Grand Challenge Team (Opportunity To Investigate the Microbiome’s Impact on Science and Treatment In Colorectal Cancer), along with researchers in the U.S., Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and Spain, to explore the relationship between the microbiome and colorectal cancer.

The team is aiming to understand the difference between a healthy microbiome and a microbiome associated with cancer and find ways to manipulate this collection of microorganisms to better prevent and treat cancer. They will explore this through clinical trials of new interventions based on the research results.

Josep Tabernero, VHIO’s Director, Co-Principal Investigator OPTIMISTICC, and Head Medical Oncology Department, Vall d´Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), observed, “It is thanks to this Grand Challenge funding that we will continue to pool expertise, connect renowned leaders in oncology at international level in order to collectively address the complex challenge of better understanding the relationship between the microbiome and the development of colorectal cancer.”

“I am confident that our research will not only stand to benefit colorectal cancer patients, but also more broadly be applied to other microbially-driven cancers.”

Wendy Garrett, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health commented, “The colon is the most densely populated microbial environment on the planet. We’ve assembled a global team with a lifelong interest in the microbiome and its huge impact on human health. We’ve already seen certain types of bacteria that appear to be associated with a greater risk of colorectal cancer, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

“In this project, we hope to answer questions from how the microbiome influences a cancer’s response to treatment, to developing new treatments that alter the microbiome, and understanding how a person’s external environment may affect their microbiome.”

Matthew Meyerson, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, said, “Microbiome research has already thrown up a range of unexpected findings. For example, we’ve found certain bacteria that have spread with cancer cells to other parts of the body. We don’t yet know how this happens, but this is just one of the questions we’ll be trying to answer as part of this project.

“With new genomic technologies, we can map the microbiome in incredible detail, so now is the right time to be investigating this phenomenon of cancer. With this information, we hope to develop new microbiome-targeted therapies for colorectal cancer.”

The team will now join a growing community of Grand Challenge researchers, which first launched in 2015 and already includes four international teams announced in 2017.

Edward Harlow, PhD, member of the Grand Challenge advisory panel and Professor of cancer education and research at Harvard Medical School, said: “I’m not aware of any funding opportunities anywhere in the world that can begin to integrate this many international cancer experts on projects of such clear importance. These teams have been brought together to tackle many of the biggest challenges we currently face in cancer research. We can see from the progress already achieved how powerful it is to support collaborations of this scale.”

Iain Foulkes, PhD, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, said:

“Individually, these research teams are among the best in the world in their respective fields. By bringing them together across borders, Grand Challenge is enabling these teams to think bigger and establish new and exciting collaborations. The scale of the funding reflects the opportunity we see in harnessing their ability to understand and tackle cancer.”



* Further information on Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge programme can be found at: http://cruk.org/grandchallenge

** Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program statistics: https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/colorect.html


Manipulating the microbiome to beat colorectal cancer

Lead investigators: Professor Matthew Meyerson, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, and Professor Wendy Garrett, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Funding = Up to $25m


  • Professor Emma Allen-Vercoe, University of Guelph
  • Professor Hans Clevers, Hubrecht Institute
  • Dr Marios Giannakis, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School
  • Professor Robert Holt, BC Cancer Agency
  • Dr Curtis Huttenhower, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Professor Kimmie Ng, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School
  • Professor Shuji Ogino, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School
  • Professor Fiona Powrie, University of Oxford
  • Professor Philip Quirke, University of Leeds
  • Professor Cynthia Sears, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
  • Dr Josep Tabernero, Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology
  • Laura Porter, patient advocate
  • David Dubin, patient advocat


About Cancer Research UK

  • Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research.
  • Cancer Research UK’s pioneering work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives.
  • Cancer Research UK receives no funding from the UK government for its life-saving research. Every step it makes towards beating cancer relies on vital donations from the public.
  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.
  • Today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer for at least 10 years. Cancer Research UK’s ambition is to accelerate progress so that by 2034, 3 in 4 people will survive their cancer for at least 10 years.
  • Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.
  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please visit: www.cancerresearchuk.org. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


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