A DRAGON’S Den-style competition for the next big cancer research project is taking place in Scotland this week.

Some of the world’s leading scientists are coming together on Thursday in Edinburgh for the Scottish- based charity Worldwide Cancer Research, to decide on the fate of £4 million raised by supporters.

The Scientific Advisory Committee – 24 eminent scientists in the field of cancer who volunteer their time – has scrutinised hundreds of proposals from top research institutions all over the world before settling on the best.

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WCR funds early-stage research into any type of cancer, anywhere in the world. The charity's chief executive Dr Helen Rippon said: “The meeting is in the style of Dragons’ Den, with scientists pitching for the projects they think are the most exciting and ground-breaking for the future of cancer treatment and research.

“Our aim is to fund the best quality research with the best possible impact. We have set few boundaries and an open remit, so we will take pitches from junior researchers to prominent experts in the field of cancer research and are happy to fund long-term projects that might come to fruition in 20 or 30 years.”

The scientists had to sift through around 800 applications from as far afield as Bangladesh, India and China, as well as from the UK and the rest of Europe.

The 40-year-old charity has had significant success with its research funding, including with the new drug Olapariv, now licensed in the UK and USA, which has significantly improved the treatment of ovarian cancer, a cancer with poor survival rates.

“It is a targeted treatment that knocks out a DNA repair pathway that ovarian cancer cells are reliant on, so they are broken and die. But healthy cells are not reliant on this pathway and are unharmed. This is a kinder, targeted treatment, rather than a sledgehammer. This drug has already saved lives.”

Rippon added: “Funding for cancer research has become increasingly tight due to economic factors, but we are not reliant on Government funding. We are open-minded and willing to take a risk so this is a great opportunity for the brightest and best scientific minds all over the world to present their ideas.”

The charity’s supporters make small donations and it also benefits from large bequests, some of which are so generous they can fund two research projects from beginning to end.

Since 1979, WCR has invested almost £199m directly into cancer research and funded 1,808 projects for 1,120 scientists in 34 countries.

“We are the middleman in a movement where people whose lives have been touched by cancer want to improve the outcomes for future generations affected by cancer,” she added.

From the 760 applications, the judges filter out the best 180, with help from external reviews by thousands of scientists around the world who specialise in relevant fields. Each application is assigned to the two most appropriate judges to champion in front of his or her peers at the meeting on Thursday. The top-scoring 20-25 research projects will receive grants from a pool of £4m.

Rippon is not allowed to go into details about the projects that will make the final, but she is confident they will be "absolutely stellar".

She continued, “Cancer research has made huge strides over the last 30 years or so and we are much smarter about treating cancer. Scientists are now looking at targeting treatments by understanding the molecular nature of cancer – the mechanism of how cancer works to come up with kinder and more effective treatments.

“And rather than classifying cancers by what tissue they happen to occur in, we now realise that tumours form as a result of different causes, so a colon tumour may have more in common with a lung tumour than another colon tumour.

“We are now looking at how we harness the immune system to attack cancer. Usually our immune system detects cancerous cells and destroys them but in cancer these cells are hidden. If you could reawaken the immune system to catch these cells then the body itself can deal with cancer rather than using powerful drugs.

"This kind of immunotherapy treatment, using drugs that take the brakes off the immune system, has been effective in the treatment of melanomas, which used to have only a five-year survival rate but now some people live very long term. The next step would be to develop cell-based therapy using primed immune cells inserted into a cancer patient’s body.

“Other themes that are being looked at is why disrupted sleep patterns can lead to higher rates of cancer, and why cancer can be dormant for 10-20 years and pop up again, and how to stop it reawakening.”

•For more information visit www.worldwidecancerresearch.org

CURRENT RESEARCH FUNDED BY WORLDWIDE CANCER RESEARCH

•Stopping breast cancer spread. Professor Morag Park and her team at McGill University, Canada has identified the Kibra gene, whose loss of function causes cancer to spread. They will identify how Kibra works to develop new treatments for triple negative breast cancer, which represents 15 per cent of all breast cancers and has the worst outcome.

•Improving survival rates for chemotherapy. Professor Kevin Ryan of the Beatson Institute in Glasgow and his team have discovered that higher levels of a naturally-occurring component in our diet might enhance the activity of two widely-used cancer drugs. They will use funding to understand how this works with the aim of improving therapy response.

•Leukaemia. Dr Brian Huntly of Cambridge University and his team are using funding to understand more about blood cancer acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which affects 34 per cent of leukaemia patients. There are few effective treatments. He will investigate how two specific proteins may interact with and modulate HOXA9, a protein known to drive around half of all AML cases with the aim of coming up with a new treatment for the disease.