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Martin Glennie, BSc Biology 1977

Professor Martin Glennie studied BSc Biology at the University and is now Head of Cancer Sciences and a key figure in the University's Campaign for the Centre for Cancer Immunology.

Professor Martin Glennie
Professor Martin Glennie


What made you decide to study at the University of Southampton?

I liked the Southampton Biology course and its modular structure which could be adapted to fit your interests. I started in biology and ended up in biochemistry and immunology. I also liked the campus which was very open and green at the time—important for a country boy away from home for the first time.

What parts of your study here did you enjoy the most?

Immunology captured me from day one. The lecturers (particularly Dr Arthur Wild) were so enthusiastic and with only eight students on the course we all had a great time. The concept that molecules and cells are able to defend the body against almost any invading microbe is something that still astonishes me today. It was also particularly exciting to hear from clinicians who were dealing with the immune system daily, both when it went wrong and turned against the host, and how it might be able to fight cancer if we knew how. However, while this was interesting it was not until I entered a ‘real’ research laboratory where antibody drugs were being made that I knew where my future lay. 

Did you always know you wanted to go into research?

Research opened up a new world for me. It was a job, no a vocation, where you explored how the body works and how you can fix it when it goes wrong; what could be better? Nothing beats the thrill of having an idea and then testing that idea in the laboratory. Most of the time experiments don't work out, but even negative results teach us something, and then just occasionally, usually about every 5-10 years, an experiment works beyond your wildest dreams and you take a big step forward in understanding and perhaps treatment.

When did you decide that immunology was the area that you wanted to pursue?

Immunology has always been interesting, but it wasn't until I realised it might cure cancer that it became my future. Part of this might have been from the loss of a younger brother from cancer, and part because of the excitement of exploring the unknown.

How will the Centre for Cancer Immunology (CCI) help you in your work?

The CCI will change Southampton on many levels. It will provide cutting-edge facilities for our current scientists which will speed development of cancer treatments. We need to train more medical oncologists in cancer immunology and this can happen with the new labs. It will be particularly important in recruiting new scientists, including a Centre Director, to strengthen some areas of cancer immunology. This is particularly important if we are to understand how cancer and the immune system evolve together, how with time an immunosuppressive microenvironment develops in cancer, and how cancers shield themselves from immune recognition. The research community both nationally and internationally will take note of such a major development in Southampton and already we have exciting enquiries for recruitment. Finally, this centre builds self-belief in ourselves, not just in the researchers but right across the community.

You have had many high points in your career - what are you most proud of?

Probably the day we realised that we could switch on the body’s immune system, its killer T cells, to destroy cancer cells. This happened without the need for chemo or radiotherapy, just the body’s natural immune system. This was back in 1998 and it was from this work that we realised that we should focus, not on attacking the cancer directly, but on making drugs which release the immune system to attack the cancer. These drugs, which are all antibodies, are now in the clinic and while they are not successful in all patients, when they work, they can cure patients of their disease. We have to be very careful with the word cure, but it is safe to say that the responses appear very long-lasting and the immune system is able to control cancer just like it can control a virus. Our challenge now is to make antibodies work in all patients and for all cancers.

When you graduated what was your ambition and do you feel you've achieved it?

Like many teenagers, my ambitions did not extend very far beyond the next exams which somehow I scraped through. I was the first member of the family to go to university, so as far as they were concerned, my ambition was achieved the day I graduated. At that time I certainly didn't have the vision or ambition to build a cancer immunology centre to rival any in the UK. However, it is not just through my efforts, but through a unique team spirit in Southampton that this has been achieved, and it’s something we should all be very proud of.



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