Introducing Trailblazers – our new philanthropic initiative to back research’s rising stars

Cancer Research UK

Edward Bowers investigates how a new philanthropic programme is offering a flying start to early-career scientists.

At Cancer Research UK, we’re always looking for ways to fund rising stars – people we believe are set to have a big impact on the world of cancer research. We know that to achieve our aim of seeing 3 in 4 people survive their cancer by 2034 (it’s currently 2 in 4), it’s imperative that we invest in the next generation of researchers who will make breakthroughs now and in the future.

Our new Trailblazers programme presents a unique opportunity for philanthropists to invest in the most promising minds and new ideas. The highly competitive programme supports early-career researchers to launch their first independent research group. With a six-year award, they are granted a significant opportunity to make major advances as they lead their teams into bold new areas of cancer research. 

Philanthropic gifts to the Trailblazer initiative start at £5,000 and allow donors to choose a researcher to follow. Supporters gain unique insight into the researcher’s work, with an introduction and updates from them twice a year. All donations made are restricted to the research teams, supporting their salaries, and running expenses and equipment. These rising stars work across a range of research and cancer types including hard-to-treat cancers – one of our strategic priority areas.

Dr Alan Serrels: Blazing a trail in pancreatic cancer research

Just 1% of people with pancreatic cancer in the UK will survive their disease beyond 10 years – a statistic that urgently needs to change. Dr Alan Serrels, one of our Trailblazer researchers, believes that by improving our understanding of the biology that underpins pancreatic cancer, his team’s research could lead to novel therapeutic strategies for people with the disease.

Alan is particularly interested in the potential of immunotherapy, which aims to boost the immune system’s natural anti-cancer properties. Despite showing real promise in people with some types of cancer, it has generally been less effective for people with pancreatic cancer. To understand why pancreatic cancer remains resistant to immunotherapy, Alan is leading a research group investigating a molecule called FAK, which is found in high levels in cancer cells. FAK encourages pancreatic cancer growth by helping it avoid destruction by the immune system, often by preventing the immune system from recognising pancreatic cancer cells as cancerous. 

Trailblazers not only provides the essential funding Alan needs for his work but also supports his ambition of leading an outstanding research team. The programme provides access to professional development courses that aim to hone the leadership skills needed to be a group leader. Alan now feels he has what he needs to tackle challenging questions and turn his team’s ideas into reality: “Not only does the funding provide generous financial support to undertake cutting-edge research, it also ensures I, as a university-based researcher, have the necessary protected research time and support network to have the best possible chance of success.”

At Cancer Research UK, we believe that people are at the heart of progress. It’s rising stars like Alan, and generous donors who support him and others like him, who will help us bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

Edward Bowers is a Philanthropy & Partnerships Communications Executive at Cancer Research UK

To find out more about Trailblazers, contact Katie Baxter at katie.baxter@cancer.org.uk or on 020 3469 5342