Following the introduction of our new research strategy in 2014, we entered into a funding partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and launched our Multidisciplinary Project Award, with the aims of drawing expertise from beyond the cancer community and supporting new collaborations. Through the scheme we fund teams of engineers and physical scientists working with clinical and life scientists. The research projects must involve the development of a novel technique or technology applied to cancer which, if successful, could bring new insights or enhance current approaches. So far, we have funded 26 multidisciplinary teams, covering a range of topics and applications, but all are improving the ways in which we understand, treat or diagnose cancer.

We're not only interested in science that has an immediate clinical impact, but also research that advances our fundamental understanding of cancer. Two of the projects recently featured on medicalphysicsweb demonstrate the range of applications in discovery (Mechano-biology of bone in breast cancer under the microscope) and clinical research (Multidimensional imaging improves early cancer diagnosis) that we have supported.

Funding innovation
One of the risks in many cancers is the spread of the disease to new sites. Nicola Brown, Jamie Hobbs and Ingunn Holen are combining their knowledge in biology, biophysics and theoretical physics to understand how breast cancer can spread to the bone. The team, based at the University of Sheffield, is identifying features of the biophysical environment in the bone that creates a "niche" – a set of special conditions in sections of the bone that allows cancer cells to form a new tumour.

The team has adapted an atomic force microscope (AFM) and developed protocols to scan the nanoscale and microscale mechanical properties, focusing on regions of bone most and least likely to be colonized by breast cancer cells. Jamie provided the expertise in AFM to enable measurements over larger areas of the bone and the theoretical basis to help interpret the results. The researchers intend to further modify the AFM to allow combined optical imaging, enhancing the information they can collect.

Nicola and her team hope that their work will not only help us understand how cancer spreads from the breast to the bone, but in the longer term, test drugs that prevent the niche from developing, stopping the metastatic spread of the breast cancer. This project is one of many illustrating Cancer Research UK's commitment to supporting discovery research that may underpin future treatments or detection methods.

With a more immediate focus on clinical application, Sarah Bohndiek and Rebecca Fitzgerald at the University of Cambridge are developing new ways to detect oesophageal cancer. As with many cancers, early detection improves the ability to treat the disease, and is especially important in improving survival rates in this notoriously hard-to-treat cancer.

One type of oesophageal cancer can develop from a disease known as Barrett's oesophagus, and doctors currently try to detect the transition to a cancerous state by looking for pre-cancerous lesions using an endoscope. With her expertise in physics, Sarah is developing an enhanced endoscope that can capture information about the microstructure and molecular composition of lesions using both hyperspectral and holographic imaging. The two imaging modalities give far more information than just its visual appearance, which will make it easier for clinicians to detect and classify lesions.

Despite being from different areas of medical and biological physics, and working towards different goals, there are common themes that unite these two projects and other researchers funded through our Multidisciplinary Project Award. All teams have co-created their projects, identifying a clinical or biological question and working out how their different talents can be brought together in generating new ideas, taking their research in a new direction. Talking to many of the teams, we often hear that each group took time to learn the language of their collaborators. It was this interaction that allowed them to identify and build an integrated project where a new approach could improve on existing techniques to understand, treat or diagnose cancer.

New opportunities
Cancer Research UK now has a number of different opportunities for researchers working in engineering or the physical sciences who want to direct their research towards cancer. Each is unique in the challenges it encourages the applicants to tackle or the type of science it funds. Our Pioneer Award funds high-risk high-reward early stage ideas, promoting truly out-of-the-box thinking, and is open to those from both academia and industry. And earlier this year, we launched the second round of our £20 million Grand Challenge scheme, presenting eight of the biggest challenges in cancer research for international teams to tackle. In the first round, four Grand Challenge teams were funded who had a strong focus on multidisciplinary research, including the use of the latest mass spectrometry and virtual reality techniques to map out and visualize tumours.

Most recently, we announced new investment in early detection research, funding studies that use new techniques and technologies to detect and better understand the earlier stages of cancer. Areas of focus include the development of new technologies, new models of early disease and methods to determine at an early stage whether a tumour might be lethal or non-lethal. We believe that diverse teams involving physicists, engineers, cancer biologists and clinicians can generate new ways to solve the problem of finding cancer at the earliest point possible. We’re also exploring other ways to bring these groups together, including innovation sandpits and showcase events.

In July, the Institute of Physics and British Biophysical Society hosted the IUPAB and EBSA joint congress, an international meeting of biophysicists in Edinburgh. In addition to a session dedicated to the physics of cancer, there were many other exciting presentations featuring novel research that could be brought to bear on the challenge of cancer. Whether it was techniques to unpick the structures and functions of cells through multimodal imaging or methods to understand the development of heterogeneous systems through new single cell RNA-seq techniques, these ideas have the potential to identify new pathways that might be a target for treatment or better predict how a tumour will develop.

We attended the meeting and were extremely encouraged by the interest from researchers in our funding opportunities. At Cancer Research UK, we always have an open door to innovative ideas and we hope that the biophysics and medical physics communities will continue to join us in our ambition to see three-quarters of cancer patients surviving cancer within the next 20 years.