Cancer is one of the biggest killers worldwide, with 8.2 million deaths from cancer globally in 2012. An ageing population means it’s becoming much more common. In the UK, one in two of us will be diagnosed in our lifetime.
While cancer survival rates have improved significantly in recent years, traditional treatments cause problematic side effects, including damage to healthy tissue, and some forms of cancer still prove difficult to treat successfully.
What are we doing about it?
The University has been at the forefront of research in cancer immunology for 40 years and is now a leading centre in this area.
The research is looking at ways to enable the body’s own immune systems cells – the cells in the blood that defend us from infection – to recognise and kill cancer cells.
There are immune cells within cancer tumours, although the numbers vary from person to person. In a recent study, our researchers showed that, in head and neck cancers, the survival of a patient depends on how many immune cells are present in a tumour. This discovery could lead to more personalised cancer treatments – for example, patients with lots of immune cells could possibly be offered less toxic cancer treatment than those with few immune cells.
Not all immune cells in a tumour are able to attack cancer. Our researchers are exploring ways to identify individual immune cells that will be effective in tackling cancer cells. They may even be able to reinvigorate exhausted immune cells through targeted immunotherapy treatments, including vaccines.
Our exciting discoveries are moving out of the laboratory into clinical trials. The University is creating a new Centre of Cancer Immunology that will enable us to double the number of people working on cancer immunology and the number of patients on clinical trials.
What impact is this having?
Our clinical trials of drugs for advanced and terminal cancers, such as lung, skin and pancreatic cancers, and neuroblastoma, are already showing remarkable results. As many as half our patients with difficult-to-treat cancers are showing significant improvements; an amazing 20 per cent are cancer free.
In future, rather than relying on toxic drugs and radiation to kill cancer cells, we hope most cancers will be treated by mobilising the body’s natural defences. What’s more, exciting early results suggest that when the immune system is harnessed effectively, it not only eradicates malignant disease but also provides lasting protection.
“Our research focuses on trying to use the body’s immune system to fight cancer. We have much evidence that the immune system is critical in not only the development of cancer, but also in how we can overcome it.”
Professor Martin Glennie, Head of Cancer Sciences