How to use widening funds to increase the visibility and excellence of cancer research across Europe

by Milena Cavic, Jerome Zoidakis, Sergi Castellví-Bel, and Remond J.A. Fijneman

Horizon Europe widening funds are distributed to address inequity in research and innovation capacities across Europe, allowing the EU as a whole to advance together, in line with the policy objectives of the European Research Area. Although various Areas of intervention exist, their full potential is yet to be exploited. During the previous program, Horizon 2020, widening measures have triggered advanced reforms and changes, increasing the number of new partnerships thus leading to more peer reviewed international publications following Open Science principles.

Researchers from non-western European countries historically had lower h-indexes and less publications in high-ranking peer-reviewed journals, often due to lack of funds for open access publishing. Using widening funds to address this obstacle has proven effective.

As members of the EACR community, we were pleased to see that the EACR continually helps its members by various grant options as well. Just recently, grant proposal writing was addressed in the Let’s Talk About Grant Applications episode of The Cancer Researcher Podcast featuring Dr. Baggiolini, Prof. Hannon and Dr Schoenfeld, who gave excellent tips on how to increase the probability of application success.

Within the framework of the STEPUPIORS Horizon Europe Twinning project, we aimed to employ collaborative widening funds to address inequity in rectal cancer research. The 4 project PIs Dr Milena Cavic, Dr Sergi Castellví-Bel, Dr Ieronymos Zoidakis, Dr Remond Fijneman were acquainted through the COST Action TRANSCOLONCAN, making the new project one successful outcome of this form of widening collaboration. In an effort to make the transition from systems of locally or nationally organised clinical studies with slow accrual rates to more effective international clinical studies across Europe, we formed a consortium of four institutions who joined forces to redefine prognostic and predictive biomarkers in rectal cancer.

The project start date was 01 October 2022, with the Institute for Oncology and Radiology of Serbia as the coordinating institution and Fundació de Recerca Clínic Barcelona-Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (FRCB-IDIBAPS) from Spain, the Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens (BRFAA) from Greece and the Netherlands Cancer Institute-Antoni van Leeuwenhoekziekenhuis (NKI-AVL) from the Netherlands as expert twinning centres.

Treatment of locally advanced rectal cancer using neoadjuvant chemoradiotherapy (nCRT) has been shown to improve local control and survival, but response varies. In Serbia, patients proceed to surgery even in cases of complete clinical or pathological response (CR), leading to unnecessary risks and lower quality of life. The watch-and-wait approach during which patients with a CR to nCRT are strictly monitored instead of proceeding to surgery is currently not applied.

Within the first project year, all three expert twinning centres were visited by various IORS teams to exchange knowledge about biobanking, project management, radiotherapy and science. According to feedback from the NKI-AVL, the high motivation of the visitors to learn from best practices was rewarding to the many colleagues who contributed their time to the visit. Omics analyses pipelines were developed for rectal tissue samples leading to four high quality collaborative papers, and the deposition of proteomic and radiomics data in open-science repositories. A dedicated grant management office was established at IORS to enable sustainability of high-quality research leading to 3 new grant applications.

Although we were aware that making changes at the EU level in the health field will not be easy, we were surprised to see how fast changes might become visible. Even within a short 12-month timeframe of applying this collaborative approach on a specific cancer research problem in one country, significant changes in educational, promotional and treatment strategies were observed.

By the end of the project in September 2025, we hope to assess whether these collaborations can lead to better treatment strategies and steer societal impact in countries with limited research and health resources, using our rectal cancer project as an example. One might dare to propose that disparities in cancer outcomes and cancer health equity across Europe might only be addressed by similar meaningful, systematic, and strategic initiatives and active collaborations. We encourage all EACR members to explore widening funding options as long-term investments aimed at addressing disparate cancer outcomes in their countries.

Acknowledgements: This article was supported by the Horizon Europe Twinning Project STEPUPIORS (Agreement No. 101079217).

Author information:

Milena Cavic is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Oncology and Radiology of Serbia. Her research is focused on investigating molecular mechanisms of response and resistance to anticancer therapies, as well as the advancement and implementation of cancer early detection and screening programs. Since 2021, she has been nominated as the President of the EACR-affiliated Serbian Society for Cancer Research (SDIR) and is a coordinator of one Horizon Europe Twinning project (STEPUPIORS).

Jerome Zoidakis is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the Biology Department of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and Associated Faculty at the Proteomics Facility of the Biomedical Research Foundation, Academy of Athens. He has expertise in proteomics and enzymology and has designed training activities related to omics data generation and integration.

Sergi Castellví-Bel is the Group Leader of the Genetic predisposition to Gastrointestinal Cancer Group at IDIBAPS, Barcelona, Spain. During over 30 years, he has worked on human monogenic/hereditary conditions and more recently on complex human diseases such as colorectal cancer, gastric cancer and pancreatic cancer.

Remond J.A. Fijneman is Principal Investigator and Associate Group Leader of the Translational Gastrointestinal Oncology group at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Research is focused on identification, validation and implementation of diagnostic, prognostic, predictive and disease monitoring biomarkers for colorectal cancer.

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