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£1 million for Southampton cancer drug research

Published: 
16 April 2013

University of Southampton scientists have been awarded over £1million by the blood cancer charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research to develop new treatment strategies for lymphoma patients.

The project involves a new class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies which work by engaging the body’s own defence systems. The monoclonal antibodies bind to proteins on the surface of the lymphoma cells and also to receptors on the patient’s immune cells. These interactions then activate the immune cells to kill the cancer cells.

Lymphoma is a cancer of the blood, diagnosed in around 10,000 people a year in the UK. It appears as a solid tumour most commonly in the lymph nodes of the neck, chest, armpit or groin.

The introduction of a monoclonal antibody called rituximab over a decade ago heralded their use as an effective treatment for cancer. It doubled the long-term survival rates for many different types of lymphoma when used in combination with chemotherapy. Despite this impact, it is not successful in some sub-types of lymphoma and some patients do not respond effectively.

Grant to develop new treatment strategies for lymphoma patients
Professor Mark Cragg

The researchers believe that the effectiveness of antibody drugs can be enhanced by manipulating the way they interact with and activate the cancer attacking immune cells.

Mark Cragg, Professor of Experimental Cancer Research who is leading the team at the University of Southampton, said: “The success of monoclonal antibodies is determined by a key group of receptors which are themselves influenced by the genetic make-up of the patient and the activation state of the immune cells surrounding the tumour. We believe that we can use drugs to manipulate these receptors, helping to “rev-up” the immune cells and better target the tumour cells for destruction”

The four-year project will use cutting edge technology to examine how monoclonal antibodies interact with these receptors, explore how the interactions can be improved and the role genetics plays in dictating the response. By following the progress of patients in cutting-edge clinical trials, the team will be able to see how different patterns of receptor activity determine responses to these antibody drugs.

Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “Monoclonal antibodies have shown much promise in the treatment of lymphoma, but not all patients respond to them. This programme should lead to a better understanding of why some patients fail treatment and also to the identification of drugs that can overcome these defects, leading to improved survival rates for all patients.”

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