Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Technological innovation for understanding cancers of unmet need

Apply to attend a sandpit workshop to develop research applications for technological innovations for understanding of cancers of unmet need.

We welcome applications from eligible researchers, within a wide range of disciplines including:

  • medical
  • biological
  • chemical
  • data science
  • engineering and physical sciences

At the sandpit workshop attendees will create research project proposals together.

The full economic cost of projects developed at the sandpit can be up to £500,000. MRC will typically fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Projects can last up to 36 months.

Who can apply

Before applying to MRC for funding, please check:

Eligibility for this opportunity

To be eligible to apply for this opportunity academic researchers must:

  • be a researcher employed by an eligible research organisation at the time of submission of your application and for the duration of the project
  • have at least a postgraduate degree, although we expect most applicants to have a PhD or medical degree
  • show that you will direct the project and be actively engaged in the work
  • focus your application on developing technological innovations for understanding of cancers of unmet need within the following range of disciplines:
    • medical
    • biological
    • chemical
    • data science
    • engineering and physical sciences

Industry eligible applicants

Applications are welcome from collaborating industry sectors (as project partners).  Prior experience in writing research proposals would be beneficial.

Industry applicants must:

You can also include international co-investigators if they provide expertise not available in the UK. The inclusion of an international co-investigator must be discussed and agreed with the relevant programme manager before you submit the application to MRC.

Who is not eligible to apply

PhD students.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)

MRC is committed to achieving equality of opportunity for all funding applicants and encourages applications from a diverse range of researchers from all backgrounds.

MRC is committed to addressing the needs of sandpit workshop attendees which could otherwise present a barrier. We will do our best to fulfil your requirements to allow you to fully participate in this event. Please let us know if you would like to discuss any accessibility or other special requirements, such as dietary needs.

We support individuals and research teams to work in a way that suits their personal circumstances. This includes:

  • career breaks
  • support for people with caring responsibilities
  • flexible working
  • alternative working patterns

Read MRC’s guidance on flexible working and career breaks. Applicants can also find out more about MRC’s current EDI initiatives and read UK Research and Innovation’s draft equality, diversity and inclusion strategy.

Any issues that may arise throughout the funding process regarding equality and diversity should be emailed to

What we're looking for

We are looking to fund research that allows us to understand cancer better and to treat cancer effectively.

This initiative aims to bring together researchers from diverse disciplines to drive co-development of innovative and high-risk high-reward technologies to understand hard-to-treat cancers. MRC acknowledges the support of Cancer Research UK in developing this initiative.


Cancer is highly heterogeneous (inter and intra patient) and hard-to-treat tumour types show high levels of resistance to therapies.

Reasons for resistance are poorly understood, particularly in cancers with no clear underlying genetic driver, meaning patients with these cancers have fewer effective treatment options, leading to worse outcomes.

This is largely due to poor understanding of the tissue state at point of diagnosis and how the molecular landscape of the tumour and its microenvironment could inform on personalised or combination treatment approaches and new therapeutic targets.

Existing approaches to studying tumour biology can be slow, expensive, and rarely recapitulate this heterogeneity seen in hard-to-treat cancers.


Precision medicine approaches can only be fully realised through a deeper understanding of complex tissue states, dynamic and evolving cellular relationships and disease progression.

Our goal is to support the application of innovative, new technologies or approaches to provide a further holistic understanding of the dynamic biology of treatment-resistant cancers. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • understanding the genome, epigenome, transcriptome, and proteome of single cells in context
  • cell relationships and neighbourhoods within the tumour environment
  • biomechanics
  • tumour stroma and roles played by surrounding tissues

This sandpit workshop is aimed at researchers from diverse disciplines (both academic and industry) spanning:

  • cell and developmental biologists
  • molecular and genetic cancer researchers
  • oncologists
  • physicists
  • chemists
  • engineers
  • mathematicians
  • computational and data scientists

These researchers should be interested in working together to apply their skills to define challenges in this space and co-develop technological innovations to understand cancer better.

We invite eligible researchers at all career stages to apply.

Cancer challenge themes we aim to consider include:

  • hard to access cancers
  • tumour heterogeneity and molecular complexity
  • effective treatment delivery
  • disease modelling
  • dormancy
  • high stromal content
  • treatment resistance

The focus will be on hard-to-treat cancers, including brain, lung, oesophageal, pancreatic, stomach and liver cancers, which have some of the poorest 5-year survival figures.

These cancers by their very nature exhibit high levels of heterogeneity and may have undruggable or unknown genetic drivers, making them refractory to existing treatments. However, we expect that the technological innovations arising from this sandpit will be more broadly applicable to other cancer types once developed.


The objectives of the sandpit workshop are to:

  • bring together experts from a wide range of disciplines to brainstorm and co-develop innovative technological approaches to cancer biology
  • build interdisciplinary teams during the sandpit to develop novel research proposals to address technical challenges in hard-to-treat cancers
  • fund high-risk high-reward research to develop these technological innovations to better understand hard-to-treat cancers

Sandpit event overview

The event will consist of:

  • video conference introductory meeting
  • 2 day in person event in Manchester
  • 35 to 45 participants, 4 to 5 people per group
  • participants develop and present novel collaborative project proposals at the sandpit, followed by submission of short written proposals post event

Prior to the 2 day event, we will run a short video conference to introduce participants and their areas of expertise in advance of meeting in person.

At the 2 day sandpit event, participants from diverse scientific backgrounds will come together to define challenges and generate ideas for research proposals. A facilitator will lead the proceedings, explain the objectives of each session, and help organise discussion groups of 4 to 5 people.

Advisory Group members and ‘mentors’ will observe teams developing their ideas and approaches and may provide prompts to encourage bolder thinking or expansion of concepts.

At the end of the 2 days, participants will present research proposals in person to the Advisory Group. The Advisory Group will discuss the proposals and invite groups with the most promising ideas to submit written proposals for final assessment.

How to apply

Pre-application stage

You must apply to attend the sandpit event using the short online application form.

Full application stage

If successful following the sandpit event, you will be invited to submit a full application. We will send you guidance on completing a full application at this next stage.

Invited groups will have 5 weeks to prepare and submit their written applications following the sandpit event.

Travel, accommodation, refreshments, and meal costs will be met by the organisers.

How we will assess your application

We will use the following selection criteria to assess applications to attend the sandpit:

  • the potential to develop innovative approaches to research
  • the potential to work collaboratively and within interdisciplinary environments
  • the ability to communicate and engage with diverse non-academic stakeholders
  • relevant research expertise and experience

We will notify successful applicants by the first week of December 2022. We regret that we are not able to provide feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

The sandpit Advisory Group will assess the invited written applications submitted after the sandpit. Additional experts will be invited to assess the applications if subject areas are not covered sufficiently by the expertise of the Advisory Group.

The Advisory Group will decide which projects to fund from a total budget of up to £2.5 million.

We anticipate funding 5 to 10 projects of up to £500,000 for a 3-year duration.

Contact details

Ask about this funding opportunity

Isobel Atkin, Programme Manager, Molecular and Cellular Medicine


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