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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life SciencesHealth & Medicine

Cancer Immunology

The body’s immune system is one of the best weapons against cancer, but cancer cells can evade detection, and can neutralise protective immune responses. Cancer Immunology is the interdisciplinary study of how our immune system interacts with cancer as it develops, and Immunotherapy refers to the application of this knowledge to create revolutionary new treatments capable of boosting the body’s immune system to find and destroy cancer.

Image: Cancer

Our research underpins the development of three main areas of immunotherapy

Direct targeting antibodies

Our scientists are engineering monoclonal antibodies that can target specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells. By understanding exactly how antibodies lock on to cancer cells and then trigger the immune system to destroy them, we can supercharge new immunotherapies. One such antibody, developed in Southampton in collaboration with pharmaceutical industry: Ofatumumab, is licenced for use in the clinic, joining several others that are effective in treating lymphomas.


University scientists are researching new combinations of immunotherapy drugs which have the ability to overcome the resistance of cancer cells to the immune system. Using antibodies that specifically block negative signals and boost positive signals to anti-cancer killer T cells can dramatically restore immunity to cancer.  Southampton researchers were involved in developing the first of these so-called checkpoint blockade immunotherapies which have been so successful in clinical trials that they are now available as first-line treatments for certain cancers.


Vaccines have been used to prevent infectious disease for many years and they are now  being used to treat cancer. Sometimes, cancer does not provoke an immune response, accounting for the poor responses to checkpoint blockade immunotherapy in some cancers.  Vaccination could help to rectify this situation and Southampton researchers were the first to trial DNA-based vaccines against cancer.  This has led to new generations of vaccines which will be used in combination with immunomodulatory antibodies.


Centre for Cancer Immunology
Centre for Cancer Immunology

Related Staff Member

Please see a selection of postgraduate courses related to this subject area below. 

For the full range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Southampton, please visit our courses webpages

PhD Programme in Biomedical Research

We are one of the UK’s leading centres for biomedical research and offer a range of postgraduate opportunities in both basic and clinical science.

DM Programme in Biomedical Research

We are one of the UK’s leading centres for biomedical research and offer a range of postgraduate opportunities in both basic and clinical science.

MSc Genomic Medicine

Genomic technologies and information will transform practice across the clinical professions over the next decade.

IPhD Immunity and Infection

Our four year Integrated PhD programme reflects some of the major research strengths of the University, and is available in three pathways.

MSc Clinical Leadership in Cancer Care

This unique, interdisciplinary programme is the only one of its kind in the UK for clinical leaders working in cancer, palliative, or end of life care.

MSc in Statistics with Applications in Medicine

This one-year course provides sound Masters-level training in statistical methodology, with an emphasis on solving practical problems arising in the context of collecting and analysing medical data.

Photo of Joseph Egan
I like that my PhD will be co-supervised by the Department of Mathematics and Medicine because I feel it will provide a rigorous platform that will be firmly based in the real world. I also hope that by undertaking research at the University of Southampton, I’ll have the opportunity to learn from, and collaborate with, the UK’s leading community of cancer immunologists. I enjoy developing and applying mechanistic mathematical models and I’m interested to learn more about their relationship with machine learning. The thought of parameterising such models via practical experiments taking place at the new Centre for Cancer Immunology and also the potential for these models to then guide future experiments is very exciting. Finally, I’m inspired by the thought of undertaking research that might eventually lead to the development of new cancer immunotherapy drugs which could ultimately save lives.
Joseph EganPhD

The CONFIRM trial

Mesothelioma is a hard-to-treat cancer caused by asbestos and rates are rising. Since the late 1970s, mesothelioma incidence rates have increased almost six-fold (497 per cent increase) in Great Britain. Current treatment methods include chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery and are mainly aimed at keeping the cancer under control.

But a new phase III randomised controlled trial will test whether nivolumab, a drug already used to successfully treat advanced melanoma and advanced kidney cancer, can be used to target mesothelioma. It works by finding and blocking a protein called PD-1 on the surface of certain immune cells called T-cells. Blocking PD-1 activates the T-cells to find and kill cancer cells. Preliminary studies targeting PD-1 in mesothelioma have shown promising activity and this latest trial will give more definitive indication on the benefit to patients.

Accelerator Award

As precision medicine becomes more of a reality, the ability to accurately select patients likely to benefit from a particular cancer treatment, based on detailed molecular profiling of their tumour and the microenvironment that it grows in is entering mainstream clinical practice.

Through the Cancer Research UK Centres Network Accelerator Award our scientists are using the latest genome sequencing technology to get a better picture of the anatomy of tumours and the cells that surround them.  They are linking those observations to the immune responses that indicate good prognosis and good responses to immunotherapy. This gives a clearer indication of which patients are more likely to benefit from particular treatments.

 Contacts:  Professor Gareth Thomas

Centre for Cancer Immunology

Centre for Cancer Immunology

In Spring 2018 the University opened the Centre for Cancer Immunology, the UK’s first centre dedicated to cancer immunology research.

Cancer Immunology
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