The Centre for Cancer Immunology is home to the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit (SCTU), an internationally-recognised unit responsible for the design, conduct, data management and analysis of clinical trials based in Southampton, the UK and around the world.

The SCTU’s Director, Professor Gareth Griffiths, has been a clinical trialist for 25 years and has been a Director of clinical trials units for the past 15 years, at various institutions across the UK. In 2014 he returned to the University of Southampton, the place where he completed a Masters in Statistics with Applications in Medicine in 1995, as the Professor of Clinical Trials and to take on the Directorship of SCTU.

“Southampton has things other areas don’t,” he said. “When I arrived, the clinical trials unit was doing great work with really well-renowned local research infrastructure and groups in immunotherapy and lymphoma. And it had all the ingredients to build something that would make a mark internationally. The passion for cancer research is evident everywhere you look and with its history of bench to bedside results and impact on clinical practice, I knew I wanted to help develop and expand its portfolio.”

The passion for cancer research is evident everywhere you look

Professor Gareth Griffiths,

The SCTU is a UK Clinical Research Collaboration registered CTU and currently has conducted more than 75 clinical trials and other well-designed studies, making it one of the busiest clinical trials units in the country. Forty-six of these trials are cancer-related. The CTU facilities, like all of the Centre, were made possible thanks to the generous support of our community of donors and especially James and Mindy Vernon, whose funding was dedicated to the development of the SCTU.

The Unit receives core funding from Cancer Research UK (CRUK) with additional support from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Like other units, the SCTU’s funding has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. CRUK expect fundraising income to fall by at least 20–25% in the next financial year as a direct result of the pandemic – a reduction of around £120m. In a wider context the UK’s National Cancer Research Institute project a devastating 24% drop in the UK’s overall cancer research spending in 2020, driven by a 46% fall in charity sector funding.

Professor Griffiths says the impact is likely to be felt for years to come. “It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s hard on every CTU, not just Southampton. And it’s not just a lack of funding for new clinical trials, but the pandemic made access to trials by NHS patients incredibly difficult which has impacted on the number of patients entering existing trials.”

“We made the decision to pause recruitment on our trials when the first wave of the pandemic hit the UK. We did not want to jeopardize the safety of our patients or the integrity of the data captured and as a result of lockdown, we had less access to researchers, nurses and patient visits at recruiting hospitals. However, all our trials are now open again, recruitment has started, and we are working on new research proposals and have put in measures that recruitment is less impacted by future COVID-19 waves.”

Over the years the SCTU has grown its international reputation for clinical trials and translational research. Institutions from America and Canada have sought out Professor Griffith’s team to help design and implement cancer trials in the UK. The team is recognised for being one of the most efficient units in the speed in which it sets up large, complex trials and taking results from lab-based studies through Phase I, Phase II and then longer Phase III trials, creating the evidence to change clinical practice in the NHS and positively effect patients’ lives.

The latest example of this successful model is the RIVA trial. Dr Sean Lim and researchers, based at the Centre for Cancer Immunology, found that a particular combination of antibodies targeting CD27 and CD20, greatly increased life expectancy in mice with cancer. This combination was found to safe in a Phase I human trial and it is now in Phase II human trials being coordinated by SCTU.

Professor Griffiths said: “Southampton is of a size where we can work together and take a concept first conceived in the lab, all the way to a patient clinic. To have that effect on real people, is a truly rewarding and humbling experience.

“Immunotherapy is the future of cancer treatment and Southampton is at the forefront. As a trials unit, we are all about patient benefit and the benefits coming from immunotherapy are making a real difference in clinics. Our unit is showing promising new treatments that we need to test in patients to see if they could be a standard of care. However, at the moment, there is a lack of funding due to the effect of COVID-19. Funding will allow us to continue to keep doing our research and find new treatments for patients. We need people’s support now, more than ever.”