Cancer Grand Challenges’ annual celebration of scientific progress: the OPTIMISTICC team story and taking on the microbiota challenge


Founded by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and the National Cancer Institute (NIH-NCI, USA) the Cancer Grand Challenges are internationally funded projects that aim to answer some of the biggest questions facing cancer research. Each bring together trailblazing investigators from around the world and count on the critical participation of patient advocates who all work together to find solutions to cancer’s toughest challenges.

Co-led by Matthew Meyerson at Dana Farber and Harvard Medical School, and Wendy Garrett, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Boston, USA), the five-year Microbiome Cancer Grand Challenge’s OPTIMISTICC (Opportunity To Investigate the Microbiome’s Impact on Science and Treatment In Colorectal Cancer) team connects leading experts and patient advocates in the USA, Canada, UK, and the Netherlands.

This ambitious project aims at deciphering the implication of the gut microbiome in the increasing global incidence of colorectal cancer, particularly in people younger than 50 years of age. The researchers, including VHIO’s Director Josep Tabernero*, also seek to advance insights into the inexplicable variation of the efficacy of treatments within the same patients over time, among patients and geographically.

Featuring in this year’s Cancer Grand Challenges progress magazine, Discover – a celebration of the advances against cancer that can be made when diverse, global teams come together and think differently, an article highlights OPTIMISTICC’s rationale and scope, updates on the team’s activities, and reports on progress made thus far.

Including invited comment from two of its co-investigators, Kimmie Ng, Director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, USA) and Josep Tabernero, as well as Candace Henley, one of OPTMISTICC’s patient advocates and a survivor of colon cancer, the article also signposts the promise ahead.


MICROCOSM: a first-of-its-kind

Designed to deliver on the team’s first goal of investigating how lifestyle factors influence the microbiome and subsequent colorectal cancer outcomes in different patient subgroups, the MICROCOSM clinical cohort study is now underway and enrolling patients from multiple sites across the USA, Brazil, and Spain, including VHIO. As part of a $25m award, this pioneering study will collect stool and blood samples, and long-term clinical data from more than 2,500 patients with colorectal cancer.

The investigators will unlock some of the complexities of the microbiome and hope to achieve a deeper understanding of how it influences individuals’ responses to current and novel treatments, including checkpoint-inhibitor immunotherapies.


Patient advocates: at the heart of Cancer Grand Challenges

The voice, views, and inputs of patient advocates are rightly at the very center of the Cancer Grand Challenges. Underpinning their pivotal role in OPTIMISTICC, the article also includes comment from Candace Henley, a patient advocate and an 18-year survivor of colorectal cancer, who elegantly expresses her hopes and wishes for patients now and in the future.

“The participation of patient advocates has been key in designing and implementing our MICROCOSM study. Their amazing work has greatly facilitated the enrolment of the large, diverse cohort of participants necessary for us to unravel diet-microbiome interactions that could potentially mediate the development of colorectal cancer cells and increased risk in younger patients,” says co-investigator Josep Tabernero.

“They have also been instrumental in compiling documentation for study participants including the diet-and-lifestyle questionnaire which is obviously an extremely important element of our study,” concludes Tabernero, Head of the Medical Oncology Department at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (HUVH), Vall d’Hebron Barcelona Hospital Campus.

To access this article and read this year’s Cancer Grand Challenges annual progress magazine, 2021-2022, we invite you to click here.

For more information about the Cancer Grand Challenges and to meet the teams taking them on please visit:


*Alongside Josep Tabernero, our Institute’s participation in OPTIMISTICC also counts on the expertise of Elena Élez and Iosune Baraibar, Clinical Investigators of our Gastrointestinal and Endocrine Tumors Group, Paolo Nuciforo, Principal Investigator of VHIO’s Molecular Oncology Group, and is coordinated by Neus Bayó, Senior Project Manager of our Scientific Coordination Area headed by Alejandro Piris.




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