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Let's beat cancer sooner

Today marks the start of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which aims to raise awareness around children’s cancers.

Every year, around 4,200 children and young people in the UK (ages 0-24) are diagnosed with cancer. But while survival for this group has improved a lot in the last 40 years, more needs to be done. Not only to increase survival but to ensure that those who do survive, do so with a good quality of life.

September is therefore an important time for us to talk about Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens, a fundraising campaign we set up to support research into new, better and kinder treatments for children and young people with cancer.

Deciding how we approach this challenge isn’t easy, especially with a subject as emotive as childhood cancer. And we’re asked a lot of questions about the ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘how much’ decisions we make when funding research, and about our campaign.

Here, Dr Ian Walker, Director of Clinical Research at Cancer Research UK, answers some of the most common questions.

How does Cancer Research UK decide what research to fund?

As a charity, we don’t allocate set amounts of money to specific types of cancer. Instead, the amount we spend on different cancers depends on the number of high quality research proposals we get from researchers.

We decide what research to fund based solely on the applications submitted to us by the research community. And that’s why the range of research we fund and the amount we spend on different cancers changes each year.

The process works by scientists or doctors submitting a research proposal to us based on what they would like to work on. This proposal is reviewed by an international panel of experts and then further discussed by a second, separate panel of experts. Each research proposal is judged on its scientific merit, strategic priority, feasibility and the impact it could have for people with cancer.

If the panels decide the research is of the highest quality, that it will increase our understanding of cancer, and ultimately underpins improvements in outcomes for patients, we agree to fund it. You can learn more about the process here and here.

What percentage of the money you spend on research goes towards cancers affecting children and young people?

In 2016/17 we spent £6.1 million on research grants specifically focused on cancers affecting children and young people. This equates to 1.4% of the £428 million we paid out in 2016/17 on charitable activities. You can read more about this in our Annual Report and Accounts.

We also invest a huge amount of money (£112 million in 2016/17) in research to understand the ‘nuts and bolts’ of cancers’ many forms. This includes research into what goes wrong in cancer cells, what their weaknesses are, and how they develop in the first place. This work is relevant to all types of cancer, including those affecting children and young people. And it plays a vital role in the development of new, better and kinder ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.

A large amount of the money we spend outside of research grants is used to give scientists the best facilities and services in which to carry out their life-saving work. This includes establishing and running our Centres, Institutes, biobanks and Clinical Trials Units across the UK. We also co-fund 18 Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs), which bring world-leading doctors, research nurses and technical staff together to develop and test new cancer treatments.

This work includes funding and running a paediatric Clinical Trials Unit, a paediatric ECMC network and a paediatric biobank across the UK.

So while we spent £6.1 million on research specifically into children’s cancers in 2016/17, the money we spend on fundamental cancer research and on creating a world-class research environment will also help us beat children’s cancers sooner.

What happens to any excess funds that are raised but aren’t spent?

Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens is a restricted fundraising campaign. This means 100% of the money raised through the campaign is used to fund research into cancers affecting children and young people. But it doesn’t mean that we always spend all of the donations we receive in a given year.

That’s because we won’t fund sub-standard projects that our expert reviewers believe won’t increase our understanding of cancers that affect children and young people or bring benefits to patients. Instead, any excess funds are carried over to next year, where they are available to fund high quality research proposals we receive that year.

What are you doing to generate more research into children’s cancers?

Cancers affecting children and young people have always been important to us, and we have a strong track record when it comes to working in this area.

But we are still losing too many children to cancer, and some survivors have long-term side effects that can affect them for the rest of their lives.

In order to accelerate progress, we need to see an increase in the number of high quality research proposals we receive. Part of the reason we don’t receive as many research proposals for children’s cancers is because there are fewer researchers working in this area. That’s why we’re working to boost interest among younger researchers across the UK and encourage them to consider working on children’s cancers.

We’ve also been working on the services and facilities required for delivering high quality research on cancers affecting children and young people. This includes funding a paediatric Clinical Trials Unit and a biobank, which collects tissue and blood samples generously donated by young patients involved in research. These critical resources ensure high quality research can be carried out into cancers that affect children and young people.

We’re also gathering together global experts to find out what else might be hindering progress in children’s cancers so we can work together to overcome this.

Why don’t you just allocate more funds to children’s cancer research?

We know that new, better and kinder treatments are needed for children and young people diagnosed with cancer, and we are committed to doing more to make this happen.

But unfortunately, it’s not as simple as spending more money in this area. It’s about spending money in the right way, on the right research.

We know that part of this will come from attracting more high quality research proposals, which is why we’re working with researchers to make this happen.

Right now, if we received more high quality research proposals for work on children’s cancers we could fund them. And if the number of fundable proposals exceeded the amount available to us through restricted donations, we would use money from other budgets to fund them.

What research are you doing to improve things for children with cancer?

Right now, our scientists across the UK are researching cancers that affect children and young people.

Professor Richard Gilbertson in Cambridge is studying medulloblastoma and why some children diagnosed with the disease do better than others. He hopes that understanding more about the disease, and its different subtypes, will help doctors get the right treatment to the right patient.

We’re also working in collaboration with UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and Children with Cancer UK to fund and run a research project into children’s kidney cancer. Led by Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones, the team is looking into a new genetic test that could improve treatment of the disease in children.

And recently, we announced a new funding scheme to create Cancer Research UK Centres of Excellence for brain tumours. Scientists working on adult and childhood brain tumours can apply for this funding.

Are you supporting the ‘Glow Gold’ campaign this year?

Our shops are supporting Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September by selling gold ribbon pin badges in every store across the UK throughout the month. You can also buy them from our online shop.

We also run other campaigns for Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens in our shops during the year. In fact, in the past year alone, our shop teams have raised more than half a million pounds for Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens.

While we’re unable to turn our shop windows gold, there will be gold ribbon stickers in the windows to increase awareness of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and to let passers-by know that they can buy gold ribbon pin badges in our stores.

The majority of people who help run our shops are volunteers. And a lot of them have been affected by cancer in some way. They volunteer in our shops as a way of giving something back. If you are visiting one of our shops and have questions about our research on children’s cancers, please understand that our shop volunteers will not be able to answer detailed questions about our research programmes and research spend.

TK Maxx’s Give Up Clothes For Good campaign raises funds for Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens. In the last two weeks of September, there will be posters featuring the gold ribbon in our shop windows highlighting the campaign and that people can donate quality unwanted clothes, accessories and homeware to help beat children’s cancers sooner.

Throughout September we’re also carrying out PR campaigns to promote Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in national and regional media, including turning the BT Tower in London gold between 12pm-2pm and 4pm-7pm on the 1st September.

Why do you feature such a large number of children in your adverts when you don’t fund much research into children’s cancers?

Children, young people and their families feature in our wider advertising campaigns because we want to show the reality of cancer and how it affects peoples’ lives. And we share the stories of people of all ages that have been affected by cancer in some way across our campaigns. Money raised from these campaigns goes to fund research into every type of cancer, including the fundamental biology of cancer.

Everyone who features in our adverts is a real person and has given their permission and support for us to share their story.

What can I do to support Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens?

If you would like to support Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens, you can register for a fundraising booklet, which can be sent to you in the post or downloaded along with some materials to get you started.

If you’d like anything extra, such as balloons or T shirts, please contact our supporter services team on 0300 123 1861. Items to sell and buy as gifts for your family and friends are available from our online shop.

You can also learn more about how to support Cancer Research UK more widely on our website as well as how to get in contact with us.

Dr Ian Walker, Director of Clinical Research at Cancer Research UK.


Aine McCarthy September 6, 2017

Hi KR,
Thanks for your comment.

We have a long track record of funding high quality research into brain tumours. For example, work we funded for many years led to a new way of treating children with medulloblastoma. Published in 2003, the results showed that adding chemotherapy to radiotherapy can improve the quality of life for children living with the disease.

And in 2007 results were published from a 10-year clinical trial we co-funded showing that in young children with an ependymoma, using chemotherapy instead of radiotherapy reduces the risk of long-term side effects.

Despite advances like this, survival for brain tumours remains stubbornly low. That’s why we’re still working to improve outcomes for people diagnosed with a brain tumour.

As part of our research strategy, we committed to increasing the amount we spend on brain tumour research. We’re funding research looking at how brain tumours grow, spread and change over time, which could help scientists develop new treatments.

We’ve also recruited Professor Richard Gilbertson as Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Cancer Centre. He’s a brain tumour expert carrying out research to improve treatment and survival for children with brain tumours.

Recently, we also announced a new funding scheme to create Cancer Research UK Centres of Excellence for brain tumours. Scientists working on adult and children’s brain tumours can apply for this funding. We hope that by doing this we can create the best environment for world-leading brain tumour research.

Best wishes,

Áine, Cancer Research UK

KR September 3, 2017

Please explain why you have used brain tumours in children to raise funds for a considerable amount of time, when in fact you have only recently decided to offer a tiny amount of support in this area, even though it’s the biggest killer in under 40’s