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Oxford scientists are set to benefit from one of the biggest funding grants ever awarded by Cancer Research UK.

Horizontal portrait of Professor Fiona Powrie

Researchers at Oxford University are set to receive nearly £1 million as part of a £20 million investment by the charity over the next five years in a global project to investigate how billions of microorganisms living in our bodies – called the microbiome – could be manipulated to treat bowel cancer. 

The funding for the ground-breaking project will come from Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge awards – set up to revolutionise the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. 

The Oxford researchers are part of a team of scientists from the UK, the US, Canada, the Netherlands and Spain who beat stiff international competition to secure the funding.

Their project was selected by an international panel of experts from a shortlist of ten exceptional, multi-disciplinary collaborations from universities, institutes and industry across the globe. 

Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge was established to help scientists attack some of the hardest, unanswered questions in cancer research. 

Bowel cancer is the 4th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 12% of all new cancer cases in 2015*. 

Initial research suggests that a person’s microbiome – the collection of billions of microorganisms living in our bodies – may be linked to bowel cancer and their response to treatment. 

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 bowel cancer development. 

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 the disease. They will explore this through clinical trials of new interventions based on the research results.

Professor Fiona Powrie, Director of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology said: “By the end of the project, the team aims to revolutionise our understanding of the role the microbiome plays in cancer development, leading to new ways of preventing bowel cancer and new treatment strategies. 

“By taking on such an epic challenge, the team also hopes to energise and inspire others working in the field, which will hopefully lead to further innovative approaches to tackling bowel cancer.”

Alison Birkett, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson for Oxford, said: “Grand Challenge gives us the perfect opportunity to address complex questions and cross new frontiers in our understanding of cancer, to transform the lives of patients.

 “People in Oxford have every right to feel proud of the world-class research taking place on their doorstep and of their fundraising efforts, which are helping to beat cancer.”  

There are lots of different ways people across Oxford and the South East can continue to support pioneering research into cancer, including: 

  • Joining one of the Race for Life events taking place across the South East. This year, men are invited to take part in the event series for the first time, alongside women and children – including in Oxford on Sunday 14thJuly at University Parks for a 5 and 10k RFL
  • Getting and wearing a Cancer Research UK Unity Band on World Cancer Day (February 4) 
  • Committing to be more active with Walk All Over Cancer and Swimathon. 
  • Volunteering at a local Cancer Research UK shop 

For more information, visit

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