Main Menu

Celebrating one year at the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery

Juanita Bawagan speaks to some of the key figures involved in making the first year at our flagship Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery a success, despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery CCDD

Image: The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery

One year ago we opened the doors to our Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery. It is the first building of its kind, hosting hundreds of drug discoverers and cancer evolutionary biologists under one roof to lead an unprecedented ‘Darwinian’ research programme.

Over the last year, 21 research teams have moved in to the new Centre, and as Covid-19 restrictions have eased the building is coming into its own not just as a location for leading research, but also as a lively hub of collaboration – as Dr Olivia Rossanese, who leads our Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit, says.

“One of the most jarring things about moving into the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery during the pandemic was seeing the shared spaces quiet and empty,” she says. “The whole building was designed with collaboration in mind – we designed the shared spaces to be vibrant, welcoming hubs that promote interaction and collaboration. And then we moved in at a time when those very interactions were not allowed!”

That all began to change over the year, though.

“It has been an absolute joy over the past year to watch those spaces fill up,” Dr Rossanese says, “first with furniture, then with scientists and researchers, bursting with new ideas and eager to interact with team mates and colleagues. I am so delighted to see the building in use as intended, supporting our researchers in their work to discover the next generation of cancer therapeutics.”

Our building in numbers



researchers across disciplines




research teams have moved in to the Centre




 total hours worked during construction



£75 million

support needed from funders and donors


Construction site of the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery in October 2018

Image: Construction site of the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery in October 2018

 The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery has been years in the making. The first concept designs were drawn up in 2012. In March 2018 work began on the building and construction was completed 22 months later, in February 2020. 

Then in March 2020, we entered the Covid era – as national lockdowns paused work and presented new challenges. Work was delayed, but we found new ways to work safely together and complete the final additions on the building. 

One of the key areas of work was to customise the building for our cutting-edge research. Science evolves rapidly, and we needed to adapt to new approaches and equipment developed between initial designs and construction. The new building was customised to support new teams starting up at the Centre and to help other labs keep research going in a seamless transition.

Over the summer as researchers moved in, the buildings’ labs and collaboration spaces came to life. Now all of the teams have fully moved in and made the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery a home.

Project Manager Jess BarnesJessica Barnes is a Project Manager at the ICR and played a crucial role in seeing through the building from first digs to the final refittings. She says: “I just look at the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery and think ‘Wow, I helped build that.’ It's the biggest thing I've ever built in my career and been so heavily involved in. 

“There were times when things were so busy and you can't see how we're going to get there. But now that it’s done and you see people enjoying the building and hearing that they're doing great science – that's what makes you come to work every day. I'm really proud of this building and I think it's going to help our scientists make big strides in their research.”

Let's Finish Cancer 

The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery came together thanks to hard work from everyone at the ICR and our many donors and funders. Their support was integral – and the names of key donors are found throughout the building with different research units and labs named in their honour.

Our highly successful ‘Let’s Finish It’ fundraising campaign celebrated our vision for the new building, and the world-first ‘Darwinian’ research programme that would take place there. The campaign helped raise critical funds to finish the building – and it continues to bring its purpose to life.

The campaign featured a series of projects combining science and art to highlight the collaborative spirit of the new Centre: renowned street artist James Cochran’s pipette painting Cell Defence proudly hangs in the building’s collaboration space, for example, and a pill engraved with Poet Laureate Simon Armitage poem ‘Finishing It’ – written specifically in support of the project – is on permanent display.

Musicians from Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing the 'Unfinished symphony' outside the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery

Image: Musicians from Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing the 'Unfinished symphony' outside the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery.

 Another one of many memorable moments was teaming up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to create an ‘unfinished symphony’ for cancer research, which reaches an abrupt silence three quarters of the way through. In the midst of construction, musicians from the orchestra played the piece against the backdrop of drilling and digging. Only when the building was completed was the completed symphony released, in celebration of the Centre’s opening one year ago.

The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery’s innovative and forward looking approach is mirrored inside and out – as Catherine Graham, the ICR’s Head of Brand and Creative and who helped lead the campaign, explains.

Catherine said: “The Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery has a very unique style of architecture and it's one of our most environmentally-friendly buildings. It has this really strong and commanding presence on the site. It represents the first major addition for London Cancer Hub and brings hope for cancer patients in the future.”

The London Cancer Hub is an ambitious partnership between the ICR and the London Borough of Sutton that aims to make the wider Sutton site – already home to the ICR and our partner hospital the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust – the world’s leading centre for cancer research, treatment, education and enterprise.

A new era of collaboration 

A composite of labs in the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery

Image: A composite of labs in the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery (Credit: Richard Fraser / Feilden + Mawson)

For Professor Swen Hoelder, a team leader in Medicinal Chemistry and one of the key members of the Cancer Therapeutics Unit, the move to the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery was a major step change for research and collaboration.

Previously, his team was based in a building that was constructed in the 80s – which was functional, but outdated. Their new labs are designed for state-of-the-art, cutting-edge research – but just as importantly, their new position in the Centre locates them alongside other teams.

Professor Hoelder says: “The building on the whole is a lot more communicative. We mix a lot and share the writing area with several other teams. There are areas where I can sit down and talk and I also bump into people more, and stop and chat about science or football and other things.

“Being in the Centre makes a huge difference. We could work in our previous facility. But now we’re in a space we really like to be in and where you feel your mind can open up and develop new ideas.”

It’s been a big year for our drug discovery research when, in spite of the pandemic, we’ve opened and moved into a state-of-the-art new building that will make a big difference in our efforts to find innovative new cancer drugs. Over the coming year, we look forward to keeping you informed on the latest discoveries that happen here in our Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery.

We still need your support to help finish equipping the centre and to continue to fund the exciting work that is now taking place within the building. 

Please make a donation to the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, or to find out more about how you could support this new Centre, please contact Hannah Joyce in the philanthropy team.

Donate now


Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery
comments powered by Disqus