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The University of Southampton

New funding for head and neck cancer study

Published: 7 February 2023
Histopathology cancer slide
Histopathology slide of a head and neck cancer

Researchers at the University of Southampton have received £1.38 million for a new research programme to improve immunotherapy treatment for head and neck cancer.

Over the last decade, the rates of head and neck cancer have increased by 20% in the UK. The disease is difficult to treat and while surgery and radiotherapy are available, the 5-year survival rate is between 50 and 60%. Responses to immunotherapy is about 15%, so more research is needed to improve treatment for patients.

Fibroblasts are healthy cells whose role is to hold different types of organs together. But when they are hijacked by cancer cells, they become Cancer Associated Fibroblasts (CAFs) and shield tumours from the patient’s immune system and prevent killer lymphocytes from fighting the tumour. This is significant in terms of immunotherapy, which works by boosting this anti-cancer immune response.

Dr Chris Hanley
Dr Chris Hanley

The new study, led by Professor Gareth Thomas and Dr Chris Hanley and funded by Cancer Research UK, will focus on how CAFs manipulate the immune microenvironment in head and neck cancer, investigating the different types of CAFs found within tumours and developing novel therapies to target them as part of cancer treatment.

Professor Thomas, based at the Centre for Cancer Immunology, started CAF research about 10 years ago and last year the first clinical trial began testing a potential drug that targets CAF to make immunotherapy work more effectively. The team hope this latest funding will further the work and produce similar results.

Professor Gareth Thomas
Professor Gareth Thomas

Professor Thomas said: “We know that CAF cells make cancers aggressive and difficult to treat, but this presents us with possibilities for targeting CAFs in many patients who don’t respond well to existing therapies.

“Around 50% of head and neck cancers contain high levels of CAFs, which makes immunotherapy ineffective. If we can target CAF successfully, we hope that immunotherapy would be effective in many more patients.”

Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: “Immunotherapy is fast becoming a staple treatment in the clinic for some types of cancer. But immunotherapy doesn’t always work for everyone, and we need to keep refining it to ensure it gives patients the best chance of a good outcome.

“We hope to gain a deeper understanding of what causes some cancers to stop responding to immunotherapy. This latest study will build on our previous research in this area, enabling doctors to offer immunotherapy to a wider group of patients in the clinic.”

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