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The University of Southampton

Southampton experts trial new drug to help immune system fight cancer

Published: 4 March 2016
Professor Christian Ottensmeier
Professor Christian Ottensmeier

Cancer experts at the University of Southampton and Southampton General Hospital are trialling a new drug in head and neck cancer patients that could help stop their immune systems from protecting tumours.

The study, led by Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development (CDD) in partnership with biopharmaceutical company Amgen, will look at whether or not experimental cancer drug AMG319 removes the defence shield that hides cancer cells from the immune system.

The drug targets a protein called PI3K delta which, when tested in the laboratory, led to the destruction of cancer cells.

Researchers at Southampton General Hospital, Poole Hospital and the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre/Aintree University Hospital will now look at the effects of giving the drug to patients with a type of head and neck cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) to determine if it affects their immune response.

Around 54 patients with HPV-negative – those whose cancer has not been caused by a virus called the human papilloma virus – HNSCC of the lower and upper parts of the throat or mouth will be selected to participate in the study.

Patients will be randomly assigned to receive either AMG319 or a placebo during the regular break from treatment to avoid disruption to their care.

Professor Christian Ottensmeier, a consultant medical oncologist at University Hospital Southampton and professor of experimental medicine at the University of Southampton, is leading the study.

He said: “This is a really exciting trial because we’re using this drug in solid tumours for the first time, while it also tries a whole new concept of cancer therapy in solid cancers for the first time.

Prof Ottensmeier, who is based at the NIHR CRUK Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre in Southampton, added: “We hope that after taking the drug, patients will have more cancer fighting immune cells in their tumour. We will study in detail how the immune cells behave before and after AMG319 and whether they have become more effective.”

Dr Emma King, a consultant head and neck surgeon at Poole Hospital and CRUK senior lecturer in head and neck surgery at the University of Southampton, said: “I am really pleased that this trial gives head and neck cancer patients an opportunity to get this new drug.”

Tony Hoos, head of medical for Amgen in Europe, said: “The intersection of immunology and oncology represents one of the most promising approaches which may have a significant impact for patients with cancer today.

“We value the work that Cancer Research UK has done to make it possible to develop this promising drug to the next stage. This new trial will give us a better understanding of how AMG319 works, helping us learn more about its potential in patients who might benefit.”

Dr Nigel Blackburn, CRUK’s director of drug development, said: “We’re delighted that the collaboration between Amgen and our Centre for Drug Development is moving into Phase II trials. It means we’re getting closer to providing a new treatment for cancer patients.

“Teaching the body’s immune system to fight cancer is a promising area of cancer research and we’re excited to see how this drug may help.

The study follows the University of Southampton's announcement of plans to build the UK's first Centre for Cancer Immunology at Southampton General Hospital by 2017. For more information on the development, visit


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