Remarkable PhD student awarded Pontecorvo prize

Cancer Research UK

This year’s Pontecorvo prize for Best PhD Thesis has been awarded to Dr Nicholas McGranahan, an outstanding young scientist at University College London and the Francis Crick Institute.

The Pontecorvo prize is awarded to CRUK-funded students who have produced outstanding PhD theses and made the greatest contribution to scientific knowledge in their field.

Nicholas is now a postdoc with Professor Charles Swanton, who describes him as a ‘rare breed’ due to the interdisciplinary nature of his work. With parallel interests in Mathematics and Cancer Biology, he completed his PhD in Cancer Bioinformatics at UCL’s centre for interdisciplinary research in the medical and life sciences – the Centre for Mathematics, Physics and Engineering in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology (CoMPLEX). We recognise that new and innovative ideas emerge when researchers, ideas and methods from disparate fields come together to tackle a question, and we aim to support more researchers like Nicholas who develop a multidisciplinary approach to their research.

Nicky is a truly remarkable individual with a stellar career ahead of him

— Prof Charles Swanton

The judging panel were extremely impressed when they saw the impact that Nicholas has had, including his striking publication record. In five years he has delivered work that has led to a total of 25 papers and two patents. He has co-authored in journals such as Cancer Discovery, Journal of Pathology, Nature, Nature Genetics and Science Translational Medicine, with several first author papers resulting from his PhD.

Nicholas’s most striking contributions have been through his development of major new insights into mechanisms of cancer branched evolution and genomic instability. He has helped to set novel directions for TRACERx – a multi-million pound programme and our largest single investment in lung cancer research.

I felt very privileged to be nominated for this prestigious prize and it was therefore a great honour and pleasant surprise to be selected as the winner. I had a fantastic and rewarding experience working in Charlie Swanton’s group during my PhD and was fortunate to be involved in a great deal of exciting work. There is no doubt this work would not have been possible without the generous support from CRUK and I hope I can build upon this research in the future.

— Dr Nicholas McGranahan

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer mortality in the UK, accounting for more than 1 in 5 cancer deaths. While the overall cancer survival rate has doubled to 1 in 2 since the 1970s, for lung cancer it remains below 1 in 10, which is why we have made tackling it a strategic priority. We’ve made big strides in lung cancer research, doubling our spend since the launch of our research strategy in 2014, but there is a lack of fundamental research into the mechanisms of how lung cancer develops and we know it is not being detected and diagnosed early enough in a clinical setting.

Work like Nicholas’s is key to moving us forward to achieve our ambition of improving survival rates in lung cancer but we need to do more, which is why we want more researchers to focus their expertise on cancers with low survival rates such as lung, oesophageal, brain and pancreatic.

We’d like to congratulate Nicholas on his prize and look forward to seeing what his future career brings.


Nominate an outstanding student for the Pontecorvo Prize

If you've worked with a brilliant PhD student who is submitting a thesis in 2016, nominate them for the next Pontecorvo Prize. Nominations will open in the autumn and close in March 2017.