A new way to tackle inflammation-associated cancer

A team of 14 led by Professor Thea Tlsty

Canada, Israel, UK and USA

 Biologists, bioengineers, immunologists, gastroenterologists and pathologists

 5 Years


Cancer Causes Grand Challenge

The challenge: Determine the mechanisms that cause cancer without known mutagenesis, such as obesity, in order to devise novel interventions

Chronic inflammation is involved in 1 out of 4 cancers, killing 1.7 million people worldwide annually. Yet, the role of chronic inflammation in the transformation of healthy cells into cancer cells remains poorly understood. Our team is excited to use pioneering approaches and tools to solve this puzzle, and to apply this knowledge toward preventing or reverting these cancers, hoping to improve treatment for those suffering with these diseases.

Professor Thea Tlsty, Principal Investigator


Inflammation is the body’s first line of defence – cells of the immune system are recruited to fight dangers, such as infection, and to restore injured tissues back to their original healthy state. This is normally a very tightly controlled process. But sometimes it can spiral out of control and become chronic, aiding the formation of cancer. Globally, an astounding 20-25% of cancers are linked to chronic inflammation, including cancers of the oesophagus (foodpipe), bowel and pancreas.

Professor Thea Tlsty’s team is determined to tackle this problem. Leading a diverse team of experts that spans three continents, she wants to find out whether it’s possible to treat the inflamed cells and tissues surrounding a tumour, rather than directing therapies at the tumour itself.  This Grand Challenge project aims to find novel ways of treating cancer that has been caused by inflammation, and develop new options to prevent cancer developing in high-risk patients with chronic inflammatory diseases.

The Research

When treating cancer, aiming to kill a tumour directly can kick-start tumour cells into ‘survival mode’ – leading to treatment resistance or the spread of cancer around the body. Professor Tlsty’s team, composed of experts in biology, physics and engineering from the USA, Israel, Canada and the UK, plans to take a different approach – by working with the neighbourhood of cells and tissues surrounding the tumour.

The team plans to utilise the type of cells that naturally thrive in and around a tumour, and engineer these cells to release therapeutic agents. But rather than targeting the tumour itself, these therapies will be directed at the tumour’s neighbouring cells and tissues – restoring chronically inflamed tissues to a healthy state. The team wants to find out whether this approach will gradually guide tumour cells back to a non-cancerous, benign state, or help prevent the tumour from growing further. If so, the tumour cells will be less likely to initiate survival mechanisms that can hinder therapy – and therefore respond well to treatment aiming to shrink the tumour in the future.


This international team will combine their multidisciplinary expertise with cutting-edge research and technologies, challenging the way we currently treat cancer that is caused by inflammation. The research could also dramatically influence our ability to prevent this type of cancer in high-risk patients. This research could dramatically improve our understanding. Ultimately, their novel approach to preventing and treating inflammation-associated cancer could benefit up to 1 in 4 cancer patients around the globe.

We were all excited about this proposal – it feels revolutionary, which is what Grand Challenge is all about. The team are bringing together all the necessary global expertise, innovative ideas and pioneering technology to enhance our understanding of inflammation-associated cancers

Professor Nic Jones, Grand Challenge Advisory Panel 

The Team


Professor Thea Tlsty

Principal Investigator of Grand Challenge Shortlisted Team
Professor of Pathology

Country: USA
Organisation: University of California, San Francisco 
Discipline: Molecular pathology


Professor Uri Alon

Professor of Systems Biology

Country: Israel
Organisation: Weizmann Institute of Science
Discipline: Systems biology


Desiree Basila

Patient Advocate

Country: USA
Organisation: Patient Advocates In Research 
Discipline: Genetic counselling


Deborah Collyar

Patient Advocate

Country: USA
Organisation: Patient Advocates In Research


Professor Sui Huang

Professor of Systems Biology

Country: USA
Organisation: Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle
Discipline: Systems biology


Professor Donald Ingber

Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology, Professor of Bioengineering and Founding Director of the Wyss Institute

Country: USA
Organisation: Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Discipline: Bioengineering


Dr Stuart McDonald

Senior Lecturer in Tumour Biology

Country: UK
Organisation: Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
Discipline: Gastroenterology


Professor Garry Nolan

Rachford and Carlota A Harris Professor of Microbiology and Immunology

Country: USA
Organisation: Stanford University
Discipline: Microbiology, immunology


Professor Moshe Oren

Director of the Moross Integrated Cancer Center

Country: Israel
Organisation: Weizmann Institute of Science
Discipline: Molecular biology​


Professor Morag Park


Country: Canada
Organisation: Goodman Cancer Research Centre
Discipline: Cancer genetics​


Professor Varda Rotter

Professor of Molecular Biology

Country: Israel
Organisation: Weizmann Institute of Science
Discipline: Molecular biology


Dr Kole Roybal

Assistant Professor in Microbiology and Immunology

Country: USA
Organisation: University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)
Discipline: Microbiology, immunology


Ann Russell

Patient Advocate

Country: UK
Organisation: Affiliated to Cancer Research UK Cambridge Cancer Institute; independent cancer patient voice; National Cancer Research Institute Consumer Forum.


Dr Doug Winton

Group Leader

Country: UK
Organisation: Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
Discipline: Cancer and intestinal stem cells

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