Sean Lim is an Associate Professor and Honorary Consultant in Haematological Oncology at the Centre for Cancer Immunology. Her position is funded by a Cancer Research UK Advanced Clinician Scientist Fellowship, which enables her to uniquely bridge the divide between laboratory and clinic.
This International Women’s Day (8th March) she tells us why she has dedicated her career to cancer immunotherapy research and what she thinks the future has in store for the field.
Tell us about your current research focus and why did you decide to focus your career on that particular area of research?
It is an easy decision to make when you have the opportunity and privilege to see and know people who have lymphoma. I wanted to pick a field that could directly influence what I am able to offer patients in clinic.
I focus on improving the treatment of lymphoma. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph glands. As a general rule, it is a treatable cancer and is potentially curable, however there are a proportion of patients who experience repeated relapses or have disease which does not respond to current treatment. Further, some subtypes of lymphoma respond poorly to current treatment strategies.
My research looks at ways of manipulating the immune system to better fight lymphoma cells through the use of antibodies. We can broadly group antibodies into two types – ones that target the tumour directly (called direct targeting antibodies), and ones that target the immune system to recognise and kill more cancer cells (called immunomodulatory antibodies). We are already using direct targeting antibodies (e.g. rituximab) to treat lymphoma in drugs like rituximab, but on its own, its efficacy is mostly limited. I’m looking to see if combining it with immunomodulatory antibodies can improve the anti-tumour activity of direct targeting antibodies.
I’m also a practicing lymphoma clinician, seeing patients in the clinic, so my focus is always on translating new, successful discoveries from the lab into new treatments. It is an easy decision to focus on this particular area of research, when you have the opportunity and privilege to see and know people who have lymphoma. I wanted to pick a field that could directly influence what I am able to offer patients in clinic.
How could your research change the way lymphoma is treated?
Chemotherapy is currently the mainstay of lymphoma treatment and has been for the last 50 years. The two main problems with chemotherapy are that its cancer-killing ability is generally short lived and so when the treatment stops, there is a risk of the cancer coming back. Second, it is not specific for cancer cells and so it produces many unpleasant side-effects for patients.
Antibodies are more specific, and so broadly, has a better side effect profile. I believe by systematically dissecting and studying the cancer cell and immune responses to these drugs, we should be able to find out how we can manipulate the immune system to continually kill cancer cells and produce the elusive ‘cure’.
You recently received an Advanced Clinical Scientists Fellowship from CRUK – what will this allow you to do?
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has been incredibly generous and supportive of my research. This Fellowship pays for my salary (including all my NHS time), the salaries of a postdoctoral fellow and a technician, and all the money I need to carry out my research for five years.
What do you think the future holds for cancer immunotherapy?
Cancer immunotherapy has come a long way from an idea, first conceived in the 1950s, to the production of actual drugs that are used in clinics today. Antibodies are the best examples of this. I think in the future, combinations of different antibodies will form the first line of treatment for patients, taking the place of chemotherapy. And we will have established basic principles for efficacious antibody combination therapy across multiple cancer types.
It has been a year since you moved the Centre for Cancer Immunology – how has the new space enhanced your work?
The Centre is a far more conducive space to write, think and hold meetings. In terms of the laboratory space, we would never had had enough space to house the new equipment and staff in our old premises. It is also easier to attract talent when there is a shiny new building.
As you know the Centre was funded entirely through philanthropic donations. As a scientist, how important is to have such support for medical research? Did it surprise you that the University’s campaign was so well supported?
Most of my research is funded through the generosity of the public. None of it would happen without philanthropy. Research has driven all the medical advances we encounter today but it is an ongoing journey. Unfortunately, this means there is strong competition for research funding across the whole of medicine which often puts young researchers off.
I didn’t really know what to expect as this is the first big campaign I have been involved in. But Southampton is a leader in Cancer Immunology and this campaign has put us firmly on the map.
You completed your PhD at the University of Southampton in 2011 and then came back in 2015 after some time in America – why did you choose to return?
America was fantastic and a real eye opener. I think it is the place where dreamers are born, but then you need support and guidance to achieve your dreams. I have not encountered a more supportive and brilliant group of people than within the Centre for Cancer Immunology, the University and my clinical lymphoma colleagues, from nurses to doctors alike.
What would you say is your proudest career achievement?
Unlike most researchers, I started relatively late in my career. My first experience of research was in my 30s when I undertook my PhD, so I still feel like a beginner to research, and it is probably a bit early to answer this. But, I am proud of the fact that two of my laboratory projects have now entered early phase human trials.