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The University of Southampton

Major boost for cancer immunology research thanks to £10 million gift

Published: 18 July 2012

The University of Southampton has received a gift of £10 million to directly boost its world-class research in cancer immunology and immunotherapy.

The anonymous gift from a private donor is the largest single donation the University has ever received and will keep the University at the very forefront of this important and expanding area of medical research. The same donor has also contributed a further £10 million to Cancer Research UK. The donor made two separate gifts to reflect the importance of the basic research but also the essential role of being able to translate work in the laboratory into treating people with cancer.

The University of Southampton will use the gift to build on its global reputation by creating a cancer immunology centre. The centre will link to the Francis Crick Institute, a major new biomedical research centre set to open in 2015, to speed up the translation of research discoveries into benefits for patients. To further maximise the potential for the new centre, the University will launch a campaign to raise a further £10 million to advance its role in cancer immunology research.

For more than a decade, Southampton has made a number of advances in tumour immunology and immunotherapy with a reputation for its ‘bench to bedside’ results. More and more evidence is showing that the immune system has enormous potential to fight cancer and to extend peoples’ lives. Recent results from large clinical projects are giving real hope that researchers are entering a new era of cancer treatment.

The new treatments come in the form of vaccines and antibodies designed to direct special immune cells against cancers. According to Professor Martin Glennie, Head of Cancer Sciences and Professor of Immunochemistry at the University, these cells are normally responsible for protecting the body from invasion by viruses such as measles and influenza. However, given the right education, these ‘killer’ immune cells can control and shrink cancer and give long-lasting protection.

“For many years researchers in Southampton have led the way in this fight,” said Professor Glennie. “We were one of the first units to isolate antibodies and develop vaccines that trigger immunity against cancers of the prostate, colon and against leukemia.

“We have been particularly successful at taking discoveries from the laboratory and offering them to patients in clinical trials,” Professor Glennie continued. “It has been a long wait, but this work is now paying dividends and shows the true potency of the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Our antibody discovery programme is already delivering new drugs to the clinic and with the new centre, we can accelerate this process.”

The most recent drug in this class is called Ipilimumab which stimulates the immune system to kill cancer cells and it was the first ever treatment to extend the life of patients with the aggressive skin cancer called melanoma.

“These exciting results are just the first in a rapidly growing list and over the coming years we expect to see numerous ‘immune booster’ drugs of this type being approved for different all sorts of cancer,” says Professor Christian Ottensmeier who leads the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre in Southampton and helped to develop Ipilimumab. “This is just the first tantalizing glimpse of how of the immune system can benefit patients if given the right kind of help. Southampton has an outstanding track record of developing new vaccines for clinical testing and with our expertise in antibody discovery we have the tools to really make a difference.”

This fight has been boosted by the £10 million donation, which will build a new Centre for Cancer Immunotherapy. This resource opens the way for new facilities, new laboratory-based research and new treatments for patients.

Peter Johnson, Professor of Medical Oncology at the University and also Chief Clinician for Cancer Research UK, said: “These donations to the University of Southampton and Cancer Research UK will transform our ability to move new immune treatments for cancer from the laboratories in the Francis Crick Institute to patients, through the new cancer immunology centre in Southampton. Harnessing the power of the immune system is one of the most promising areas of new cancer treatment, and this far-sighted initiative will really make a difference to both our scientific understanding and its practical application in the clinic.”

Professor Don Nutbeam, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton said:
“This is an extraordinary act of generosity by a very special individual. This donation of £10million is the largest ever gift received by the University of Southampton and will enable us to create and develop this new centre for cancer immunology research.

“This remarkable gift will allow us to build on our expertise and expand the research teams in Southampton to make even greater progress in developing new treatments. The next few years will see great progress in immune therapies for cancer with the University of Southampton and the Francis Crick Institute at the very forefront of discovery.”

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