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ERA-NET on Translational Cancer Research

Final Report Summary - TRANSCAN (ERA-NET on Translational Cancer Research)

Executive Summary:
Cancer is a worldwide health problem, in particular in Europe it is responsible for 25% of all deaths and is the second most common cause of death. The population ages, more people are diagnosed with cancer, survival has improved and some cancers have become chronic diseases; these factors make cancer a major societal challenge.
In the field of cancer research, where new discoveries have brought innovative diagnostic approaches and effective therapies, a continuous strong financial support is required. However in European countries research policies and structures are often fragmented, priorities for funding are set at national level and the funding organisations have different aims and regulations.
ERA-NET TRANSCAN was a coordination action financially supported by the European Commission within the 7th Framework Programme. It involved 29 partners (ministries, funding agencies and charities) from 20 countries. TRANSCAN ran from 1st January 2011 to 31st December 2014.
The overall objective of TRANSCAN was to coordinate the transnational research funding programmes between European Member States and Associated Countries.
The harmonisation of translational cancer research funding was identified as a way to overcome fragmentation of resources through the development of common regional, national and joint European programmes. In particular the support of translational cancer research is the key instrument to contribute to bridge the gap between scientific discoveries and patient care. The cancer research community must be brought together as the formation of interdisciplinary transnational teams of researchers and clinicians favours the achievement of an effective critical mass.
The main TRANSCAN activities and related results were:
• Survey and analysis of national funding of translational cancer research to support translational research funding policy development.
• Design and implementation of three joint transnational calls for proposals in the area of translational cancer research, comprising the capacity building and training activities components. Three calls for proposals were launched with the consequent funding of 30 multinational translational cancer research projects. The total dedicated budget was roughly over €33.5 M, from funding organisations participating to the calls. The importance of the TRANSCAN calls as instruments to impel transnational collaborative projects on cancer research across Europe was confirmed.
• Internal monitoring of the operational processes of TRANSCAN for the assessment of the performance confronted with the expectations of the involved partners. TRANSCAN has been considered an effective instrument for coordination of efforts in funding cancer research, harmonisation of procedures and avoidance of overlapping. It has encouraged the internationalization of research teams by promoting the knowledge transfer, has contributed to the strengthening of the research communities, to the increase of quality and impact of translational cancer research and to the building up of research expertise. The partners’ expectations were fully satisfied.
• Preparation of a sustainability plan for the future beyond the lifespan of the TRANSCAN project identifying measures of making this collaborative network sustainable. TRANSCAN has paved the way to the future setting up of a sustainable pan-European platform for funding translational cancer research. The experience gained during TRANSCAN contributed to the definition of a sustainability plan for the future, namely regarding the shaping and building of the concepts, objectives and structure of the TRANSCAN-2 proposal submitted to the European Commission in response to the Horizon 2020 call under Health Co-ordination activities HCO8 – 2014: ERA-NET: Aligning national/regional translational cancer research programmes and activities. The proposal was positively evaluated by the European Commission and the TRANSCAN-2 ERA-NET Cofund action is set to start on 1 January 2015.

Project Context and Objectives:
Cancer is a worldwide health problem, representing a major public health challenge in Europe, where it is responsible for 25% of all deaths. It is the second most common cause of death after cardio-vascular diseases and the main mortality cause among people aged 45–64. This situation is expected to worsen as the European population is ageing. The number of cancer patients and survivors in Europe has grown notably due to recent achievements in early detection, treatment and care of cancer. Some types of cancers have increasingly become manageable chronic disease with better treatment and outcomes. The chronicization of cancer has contributed substantially to growth in medical expenditures and constitutes a major socio-economic burden for Europe as well as globally.
Within this context, an effective bidirectional transfer of findings between bench and bedside, translating basic discoveries into clinical applications, would play a pivotal role in addressing high-priority needs in cancer control and care. In fact, despite the impressive efforts and consequent progress in the research on cancer biology as well as in the development of novel technologies, derived from functional genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and functional imaging, many gaps in the knowledge of cancer development, diagnosis, recurrence, treatment and resistance to treatment still exist.
The strengthening of translational cancer research could achieve the integration of basic, epidemiological, preclinical and clinical cancer research bringing the needed innovation to maximise cancer care and survival.
Europe has the building blocks to convert scientific discoveries and inventions into innovative products and services capable of boosting healthcare. However in the Member States research policies are fragmented, priorities for funding cancer research are set at national level and in particular the funding organisations have different aims and regulations.
Overall the European scientific community offers unique strengths in terms of quality of basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, cancer registries and infrastructures forming the critical mass required to translate scientific discoveries into clinical applications. Nevertheless these resources are often fragmented and the methodologies and infrastructures available to researchers, at national level, are disparate.
Based on the above considerations, at a European level, an integrative process is needed for better coordination of research policies and funding among Member States. The development of a common European strategy and platform for the coordination of translational cancer research is a top priority.
The ERA-NET TRANSCAN was built upon the recommendation to the European Commission for the establishment of an ERA-NET for translational cancer research, with the aim of improving the coordination between European funding agencies, guaranteeing a more efficient coordination of cancer research in Europe, and overcoming the above mentioned fragmentation, duplication of research efforts and, sometimes, inefficient use of resources in Member States
The ERA-NET TRANSCAN links 29 organizations in 20 Member States and Associated Countries involved in the funding of cancer research, including four major charities. The consortium is composed of funding agencies with a large experience in transnational cooperation and funding. Nevertheless, this individual experience had to be transferred into an effective and fruitful cooperation within the TRANSCAN network, addressing to the cancer research community with the specific goal to promote translational cancer research across Europe.
The main objectives of the project, to be reached through interconnected activities structured into six work packages whose implementation was guaranteed by the management and network coordination were the following:
i) Survey and analysis of national funding of translational cancer research to support translational research funding policy development;
ii) Design and implementation of three joint transnational calls for proposals with topics related to translational cancer research. to favour multi-disciplinary collaboration between researchers across Europe and to achieve critical mass of expertise and resources;
iii) Implementation of capacity building activities in the proposals, through the support to training programmes/activities of multi-disciplinary translational cancer research teams. The building of inter-disciplinary teams, where discovery, development and delivery come together, is considered a key factor to foster the advancement in translational research. The inclusion of the capacity building and training activities components in the Joint Transnational Calls has the goal of strengthening human resources.
iv) Assessment of the performance of TRANSCAN by monitoring of the operational processes underlying the project activities and achievements and confronting the results with the expectations of the involved partners organisations with regards to the general aim of reducing the fragmentation of European translational cancer research.
v) Preparation of a sustainability plan for the future beyond the life of the TRANSCAN project identifying measures of making this collaborative network sustainable.
The ultimate goal and expected outcome of TRANSCAN was to strongly contribute to the building of a more effective European Research Area (ERA) by facilitating and coordinating regional, national and joint European cancer research funding programmes between European Member States and Associated Countries.

Project Results:
The most relevant goals of this ERA-NET were achieved.
One of the focuses of TRANSCAN was on mapping the nature and extent of translational cancer research funding in the EU, using the Common Scientific Outline (CSO), a standard international cancer classification scheme, developed by the International Cancer Research Partnership (ICRP), to compare portfolios and identify research gaps and opportunities for collaboration. The aim was to understand the current extent of translational research and to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for co-ordinated translational research.
This analysis has been performed by interested TRANSCAN partners who, guided and trained by the tasks responsible partners, have made available for coding data on the funded national research projects relative to an agreed period.
Portfolio data from 16 TRANSCAN partners was acquired, validated and analysed, it contains over 4000 awards totalling €774m in the calendar year 2011. A data sharing agreement was signed by the majority of participating organizations to provide a platform for sharing the data.
TRANSCAN launched three Joint Transnational Calls for proposals (JTCs) over the four years of existence whose preparation and implementation comprised the following aspects: i) definition of the content (research topics), ii) definition of the evaluation procedure (criteria, review panel), iii) agreements on administrative and governance issues, iv) preparation of all relevant documents and v) definition of monitoring procedures for the JTC-funded projects.
The calls followed a two-stage submission procedure (pre-proposal and full proposal) with peer review of proposals by a committee of independent experts (Scientific Evaluation Committee, SEC) with specific competencies in relation to the call topic, installed, and mostly renewed, for each call. A transparent evaluation process was guaranteed: each pre-proposal was independently evaluated by 2 SEC experts while, for the second stage, each full proposal was evaluated by 4 experts (2 SEC members and 2 external reviewers with specific competencies related to the proposal). Two evaluation meetings, one for each step, with the participation of SEC members, guaranteed the possibility to discuss evaluations and reach consensus.
The calls were managed by a central Call Secretariat responsible for their implementation, for all the operational procedures and for the feedback from the representatives of funding organisations, forming the Network Steering Committee (NSC). The responsibilities in the secretariat were rotated among partners in the different calls.
An independent Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) was installed at the beginning of the project. It was composed of 10 eminent European scientists with recognized expertise in different fields of translational cancer research, biomedical and clinical sciences, epidemiology and public health.
The agreement on the call topics was reached, for each call, by the participating TRANSCAN partners. The proposed topics were initially suggested and presented at each annual joint SAB - NSC meeting by the SAB members. The representatives of the Funding organisation (NSC), based on their knowledge on themes of outstanding European interest and/or underrepresented in current national and international funding portfolios, contributed to the finalisation process as well as to the preparation of the call documents and the agreement on the underlying procedures.
The launched calls have seen the participation of almost all the TRANSCAN funding organisations and the total number of funders vary from 15 to 18 for each call.
The 1st call for proposals, TRANSCAN JTC 2011, was launched in 2011 with the topic "Validation of biomarkers for personalized cancer medicine". The aim of this call was to develop transnational innovative projects in oncology, clearly oriented towards a rapid application of new, more selective and effective tools and strategies for the prevention, diagnosis, early detection, and therapy of neoplastic diseases, aiming at the validation of previously identified candidate biomarkers or of their novel and/or combined use. Within this aim, the proposals had to cover at least one of the following areas: prevention; early detection; diagnosis; prediction of response or resistance to treatment; prediction of treatment toxicity.
The theme of the 2nd call, JTC 2012 was “Translational research on primary and secondary prevention of cancer”. This call was launched in 2012 and aimed at developing transnational innovative projects in cancer prevention, focused on the research of the mechanisms responsible for maintaining a healthy status vs. those underlying cancer development, and clearly oriented towards a rapid translation of the existing and newly acquired knowledge into individual- or patient-tailored interventions at highest potential for cancer control. Transnational research proposals had to address the topic of translational research on primary and secondary prevention of cancer.
At the end of 2013, the 3rd call, JTC 2013, was launched under the theme "Translational research on tertiary prevention in cancer patients". This call addressed a major challenge for translational cancer research, namely the development of novel, highly specific and increasingly effective tools and strategies for the prevention of cancer. The 3rd TRANSCAN JTC had three aims: i) Assessment of the impact of health behaviours on clinical outcomes in cancer patients; ii) Optimisation of the quality of life of cancer patients; iii)Prevention of recurrence and second cancer.
TRANSCAN’s 1st JTC had 117 pre-proposals, requesting a total amount of 113.817.145€. The budget committed by the 15 funding agencies, of 15 different countries, amounted to 14.310.000€, with individual contributions ranging from 200.000€ to 3.000.000€. Considering the requested budget by the applicants in this pre-proposal stage, and the committed budget by the agencies, one can calculate an average oversubscription factor of 7.95 which is an indicator of the high level of interest of the scientific community in the topics covered by the 1st JTC. After a pre-proposal eligibility verification, 17 out of the 117 pre-proposals (14,5%) were considered as not eligible. An evaluation of the remaining 100 pre-proposals was performed by SEC members, which recommended that 34 proposals should be invited to submit a full proposal. Of these 34 proposals considered for final evaluation 10 were recommended for funding, resulting in a final approval rate of 29,4%. If one considers the 100 eligible pre-proposals, that final approval rate is of 10%, a result that may need additional reflection by the consortium.
In the 2nd JTC, the budget committed by the 17 funding agencies amounted to 14.600.000 €. with individual contributions ranging from 200.000 € to 3.000.000 €. 55 pre-proposals were submitted, and after the eligibility verification one was considered not eligible. The pre-proposals were evaluated and 22 were recommended for the submission of full proposals. After a final evaluation of the submitted full proposals, 10 were recommended for funding, which represents a final approval rate of 45.5% only in relation to full proposals and 18.1% relatively to all submitted pre-proposals. These proposals selected for funding had an overall requested budget of 11.162.537€.
In 2013, the 3rd TRANSCAN JTC was launched and 17 funding agencies committed a budget of 12.010.000 €, with individual contributions ranging from 200.000 € to 3.000.000 €. 68 pre-proposals were received, evaluated and 23, out of the 66 considered eligible, were invited for submission of full proposals. After a final evaluation, 10 full proposals have been selected for funding, which corresponds to a final approval rate of 43.5% regarding only the full proposals and a rate of 14.1% considering all the pre-proposals submitted to this Call. The overall budget requested for the projects selected for funding was 11.353.017 €.
As a final result, the budget for financing the projects selected in the three JTCs was roughly over 33.500.000 € which represents a multiplication factor of the EC contribution to TRANSCAN close to 17. This strongly confirms the importance of the TRANSCAN calls as instruments to impel transnational collaborative projects on cancer research across Europe.
The budget for financing the projects selected in the three JTCs was roughly over € 33,5 M which represents a multiplication factor of the EC contribution to TRANSCAN close to 17. This strongly confirms the importance of the TRANSCAN calls as instruments to impel transnational collaborative projects on cancer research across Europe.
The results of the calls are publicly available on the TRANSCAN website, with the list of funded projects, the involved research groups and the project abstracts.
The capacity building and training activities components were included in the three calls. The applicants were encouraged to include these non compulsory components in their proposals with the objective to strengthen or build translational research capacity while advancing their research enterprise. The requested budget for these activities was separately evaluated to be financed if relevant either for the conduct of the research project itself or for the team and/or the individuals in the frame of the project.
These components were well represented in the three calls, being comprised in around 40% of the projects. Nevertheless it should be noted that the aggregated budget dedicated to these activities remains low with around 2% of the global budget allocated to the first two calls and only 0.76% to the JTC 2013. Of note that some funding organisations couldn't fund these activities, thus reducing the amount of requests of this kind since the beginning.
Being the ambition of TRANSCAN to coordinate and promote the transnational research activities towards translational cancer research areas that could most benefit from coordination and collaboration, TRANSCAN’s JTC 2011, JTC 2012 and JTC 2013 awards were also coded so to evaluate their impact on the overall portfolio. In addition, the EU FP7 projects in cancer have been coded. All data are included in a final dataset of which several versions have been prepared, to comply with data sharing requirements.
A methodology has also been included to identify translational research automatically through the use of CSO sub-codes. The capacity to use the original definition of translational research, as suggested in the initial DOW is included along with a more nuanced interpretation based on later work in partnership with ICRP organizations, suggesting that projects wholly or partly coded to CSO3, CSO4, CSO5, CSO6 (partial) could be considered as translational research. The method has also been used to demonstrate the translational nature of the TRANSCAN JTCs.
TRANSCAN performance with respect to partner expectations was monitored along the span life of the project existence by means of surveys. The main ambition of the TRANSCAN partners for their scientific community was that their participation in this ERA-NET would encourage the internationalization of research teams and support the teams that already have international collaborations, would promote the knowledge transfer and link to clinicians and provide knowledge not available in their own country. The most important reached objectives for TRANSCAN partners has regarded the contribution to the strengthening of the research communities, the increase of quality and impact of translational cancer research, the avoidance of duplication and building up research expertise and the opportunity to train multidisciplinary teams covering all the phases of the translational process for the development of anticancer interventions.
With regard to the interaction with other EU activities to contribute to the building of the European Research Area in the oncology filed, the TRANSCAN network has followed the progress of the Joint Action European Partnership for Action against Cancer (EPAAC), with particular regard to the WP8- Research. This connection was favoured by the presence in the EPAAC WP8 of three institutions (INCa, ISCIII and ISS) which are partners in TRANSCAN.
The developments of the three proposed pilot projects:
• Pilot Project1: Public-Private Partnerships in early phase clinical research: Spurring access to innovative therapeutics (INCa, France)
• Pilot Project 2: European cancer outcomes research platform (ISS, Italy)
• Pilot Project 3: A European “knowledge hub” for cancer epidemiology and public health research coordination (ISCIII- CSISPS, Spain)
have been observed by TRANSCAN partners having received the concept papers, the proposal outline, and formal presentations. Future joint activities were discussed.
Amongst the possible collaborations with other European initiatives, those involving ESFRI biomedical sciences Research Infrastructures have been taken into consideration, with particular but not exclusive attention to EATRIS, the European Infrastructure for Translational Medicine (EATRIS ERIC), which includes more than 70 academic institutions in 8 European countries, with the mission to supporting translational medicine. EATRIS ERIC may offers the following advantages: i) single point of access to the right expertise and facilities; ii) to expedite the development process; iii) to give access to large and diverse clinical patient cohorts. Recently, EATRIS ERIC has developed the so-called “EATRIS Inside” model, based on a direct support to shortlisted and funded researchers through access to the translational expertise and high-end research facilities residing in EATRIS. This model has been presented to the TRANSCAN partners and discussed, its implementation is in the agenda for the TRANSCAN-2 additional joint calls.
One of the main objectives of the TRANSCAN project was to extend and strengthen the consortium in terms of sustainability of the network and of the coordinated funding of translational cancer research at European level. To this end, contacts were established especially during the project last year, thanks to the cooperation of the TRANSCAN partners acting as public-governmental funding organizations in the respective countries, between the coordination and several funding organizations. Four additional partners, namely: the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan (MoST), a third-country entity; the Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS), Belgium, as for the Belgian French-Speaking Community; the Estonian Research Council (ETAg), Estonia; and the Foundation for the support of the Applied Scientific Research and Technology in Asturias (FICYT), Spain joined most of the former TRANSCAN partners in a new consortium for the TRANSCAN-2 proposal. The experience gained during TRANSCAN, in the definition of a sustainability plan for the future, have shaped and built the concepts, objectives and structure of the TRANSCAN-2 proposal submitted to the European Commission in response to the Horizon 2020 call under Health Co-ordination activities HCO 8 – 2014: ERA-NET: Aligning national/regional translational cancer research programmes and activities.
The proposal was positively evaluated by the European Commission and the TRANSCAN-2 ERA-NET Co-fund action is set to start on 1 January 2015.
The TRANSCAN network, over the last year of project activity, has laid the groundwork for the Joint Transnational Call for Proposals 2014 (JTC 2014) co-funded by the European Commission/DG Research and Innovation, under the H2020 scheme, on "Translational research on human tumour heterogeneity to overcome recurrence and resistance to therapy". The overall effort, based on the experience and solidity of the network, have made possible to announce the first call of the ERA-NET Co-fund TRANSCAN-2 on the 2nd of December 2014 and to launch it on 15 January 2015, confirming the continuity in the coordination action on translational cancer research funding.

Potential Impact:
TRANSCAN realized the networking, at European level, between funding bodies with a large experience in transnational cooperation and funding. The individual experiences of the participant funding organisations have been fruitfully transferred into TRANSCAN. For the first time the 29 partners, from 20 countries, have coordinated and launched joint calls for proposals on the themes of translational cancer research. The three calls launched in the project lifespan, have met the interest of the European scientific community involved in translational cancer research, as witnessed by the high number of pre-proposals submitted. This result translates the need for funding opportunities of international research consortia in Europe. TRANSCAN was able to fund 30 projects, with a budget from the participating funding agencies of roughly over 33.500.000 € which represents a multiplication factor of the EC contribution to TRANSCAN of close to 17.
This effort in research coordination across Europe has decreased fragmentation of financial resources as well as duplication and overlapping of programmes at national level.
TRANSCAN has been an opportunity for the partners to share information and procedures with each other and also to improve relations with stakeholders and dissemination activities.
The funding of high-level research projects has contributed to increase the quality and impact of translational cancer research and has facilitated the building up of research expertise taking advantage of the added-value that transnational collaborations create.
TRANSCAN contributed to building up the European Research Area by allowing the coordination of national and regional translational cancer research funding organisations' activities, aimed at effective cooperation at transnational level to ensure availability of critical mass and to efficiently use available resources.
Based on the overall results, we can draw the conclusion that TRANSCAN has become instrumental in fostering transnational collaborative projects on cancer research across Europe. TRANSCAN‘s approach has proven to be an effective complement to the existing instruments of the European Commission in achieving the common goal to tackle the societal challenge “Health, demographic change and well being”. TRANSCAN has done much, and we do recognise that there is still much to do to increase cooperation in translational oncological research and innovation and for a better alignment of research agendas within the European countries. It is now the turn of the TRANSCAN-2 consortium to continue on this path to guarantee the actions evident to achieve its objectives in the context of those goals set for these challenges within Horizon 2020.

List of Websites:
http://www.transcanfp7.eu