Research at the University of Southampton is looking at how immunotherapy can enable the body’s immune system to recognise and kill cancer cells.

This video (speeded up about 100 times) shows a microscopic view of a single Killer T cells scampering around killing a number of slow moving cancer cells. It's a serial killer and if you watch closely you will see that as the single anti-cancer T cell visits each cancer cell in turn, it ‘burrows’ into the surface membrane. The cancer cell then starts to ‘bubble’ as it dies. Once these killer T cells have been developed in the body, they can provide long lasting protection against further cancer growth.

Your immune system is the best weapon you have against cancer. But cancer cells are ingenious and hard to defeat. Immunotherapy is a revolutionary new treatment, supercharging your body’s natural defences to find and destroy cancer. Research at the Centre for Cancer Immunology underpins the development of three main areas of immunotherapy: direct targeting antibodies, immunomodulation: checkpoint blockade and co-stimulation, and cancer vaccines.

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 immuotherapies. One such antibody, developed in Southampton in collaboration with pharma: “ofatumumab” is licenced for use in the clinic, joining several others that are effective in treating lymphomas.

Immunomodulation
We 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
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.

Our new treatments in the form of vaccines and antibodies direct special immune cells against cancers. These ‘killer’ cells can control and shrink cancer and give long-lasting protection.

Professor Peter Johnson, Professor of Medical Oncology, University of Southampton
  • Immune 'killer T Cells attacking a cancer cell

  • Dr Edd James with researcher Emma Reeves

  • Cancer cell under attack

Leading academics explain how early-stage immunology research at the University of Southampton is leading to treatments for many forms of cancer.

Finding ways to cure cancer using immunotherapy cannot be done alone. It requires the contributions of many different specialists working as a team. Our new Centre for Cancer Immunology is a hub for interdisciplinary research, enabling collaboration between leading scientists and medics worldwide. By bringing people together, we know we can make progress faster than ever before.