UCL Department of Chemical Engineering


UCL CNIE’s Marc-Olivier Coppens joins global team to take on solid tumours in children

16 June 2022

Image of Prof Marc-Olivier Coppens

The Cancer Grand Challenges NexTGen team, which is led by Children’s National Hospital Professor Catherine Bollard (USA) and UCL’s Dr Martin Pule (UK) and includes investigators across the USA, UK and France, will receive £20m to take on the Solid Tumours in Children Challenge, seeking to develop novel immunotherapy treatments for children with solid cancers.

A world-class team of researchers, including UCL Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering’s (CNIE) Professor Marc-Olivier Coppens (Department of Chemical Engineering), has been selected to receive a £20m Cancer Grand Challenges award to tackle solid tumours in children. This includes postdoctoral, equipment and analytical support over four years within the NICE (Nature-Inspired Chemical Engineering) group of the UCL CNIE.

Cancer is a leading cause of death by disease in children worldwide. Although survival has increased for some paediatric cancers, such as blood cancers, survival for some solid tumours has seen little improvement for more than 30 years. The team hopes to build a much deeper understanding of childhood cancers and develop and optimize novel therapies for children with solid tumours, ultimately hoping to improve survival and diminish the lifelong toxicities often experienced by survivors.

Asked on what the CNIE will bring to the project, Marc-Olivier Coppens had this to say:

“Cancer Grand Challenges require outside of the box thinking via new approaches. There are considerable, even intractable problems with the reductionistic and molecular approaches of traditional chemotherapy. Cancer immunotherapy is very promising, but also currently too expensive to be widely applied. Our view is that systems properties are very important in nature, from ecosystems to our immune system, to underpin resilience and adaptability. Hence, can we learn from emergent systems and network properties in nature to develop new approaches to cancer immunotherapy? Our NICE approach and nature-inspired solution methodology takes a systems engineering approach, which looks at cancer immunotherapy from a holistic and multi-scale perspective, and includes the effect of the microenvironment.”

“Building on fundamental work by CNIE postdoctoral research fellow, Dr Matthew Chin, we will first investigate how the micro-environment using various graph-theory-informed 3D micro-printed scaffolds influences intercellular, as well as scaffold-cell interactions, including differences between various cell types, involving cancerous and non-cancerous cells. This would validate the foundations of the natural systems-inspired engineering approach, before applying it to the clinically representative environments of the project in further years. It will help the analysis of in vivo data, with the more complex micro-environments that presents.”

Cancer Grand Challenges is a global funding platform, co-founded by Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Institute* in the US, that supports a community of diverse, global teams to come together, think differently and take on some of cancer’s toughest challenges. *The National Cancer Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The NexTGen team unites scientists and clinicians with expertise in immunology, proteomics, mathematics, chemical engineering and more, across 8 institutions in the USA, UK and France. This interdisciplinary team, co-funded by Cancer Research UK, the National Cancer Institute and The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, aims to bring much needed new treatments to children with solid cancers.   

“I feel tremendously honoured about this opportunity to work with such a stellar international team as part of the Cancer Grand Challenges NexTGen team,” said co-investigator Marc-Olivier Coppens. 

“This Grand Challenge requires interdisciplinarity to achieve disruptive impact. Over the past two years, an EPSRC-funded CNIE Inspiration Grant for Matthew, as well as philanthropic support from generous donors, and departmental support, got us to this stage. As a chemical engineer with an unconventional research approach, I am humbled to have been accepted within an amazing team that includes world-leading cancer specialists. I am hopeful that our nature-inspired systems engineering approach might provide a fresh perspective on a daunting problem with huge potential impact in the real world.” 

The NexTGen team is one of four new teams announced today, 16 June 2022 as part of Cancer Grand Challenges, representing a total investment of £80m ($100m) to diverse, global teams to take on some of the toughest challenges in cancer research.

“Cancer is a global issue that needs to be met with global collaboration. This investment in team science encourages diverse thinking to problems that have long hindered research progress,” said David Scott, PhD, Director of Cancer Grand Challenges, Cancer Research UK.

 “Cancer Grand Challenges provides the multidisciplinary teams the time, space and funding to foster innovation and a transformative approach. NexTGen is one of four newly funded teams joining a scientific community addressing unmet clinical needs across cancer research.