Professor Peter Johnson, Professor of Oncology at Southampton and Chief Clinician at Cancer Research UK, is championing the Campaign for a Centre for Cancer Immunology. Here, he talks about the background to the campaign and why immunology holds the cure for some cancers.
The campaign’s goal is to raise £25m. What will the money be used for?
We are going to build the UK’s first dedicated Centre for Cancer Immunology: this is founded on Southampton’s long track record, and will help us to accelerate progress in this rapidly-changing field. There will be a new building on the Southampton General Hospital site which will house the existing research groups, our clinical trials unit, and a number of important new recruits in discovery science.
The University received an historic gift of £10 million. How did this come about and why are we choosing to put this towards the new Centre?
This gift came from one of our long-standing supporters, who recognised the excellence of the translational research in Southampton and wanted to help us do more. They also made a matching gift to the Cancer Research UK campaign to fund the Crick Institute in London, with the explicit intention of linking cancer immunology research between the two places.
What are the main aims of the new Centre?
We need to expand and accelerate our programme of research into cancer and the immune system: how cancers evade immune detection, how they can be made recognisable again, and how we can switch on the body’s responses to treat them. This will encompass a range of work spanning from basic discovery of the precise mechanisms involved right through to clinical trials of new types of treatment.
Can you explain in simple terms what immunology does and how it can help save lives from cancer?
The immune system is one of our main defences against the outside world: it is how we cope with infections and injuries. Cancer has to escape the surveillance of our immune system in order to develop at all: we generate hundreds of tiny cancers every day which are mostly caught at a very early stage by the immune system and eliminated. The ones that are a problem are the ones that have evolved to get past our natural defences. By finding ways to restore the immune recognition of cancers we can devise treatments that will control them, and keep on controlling them: immunity can be life-long if we get it right.
Why is it such an exciting time for scientists/clinicians working in cancer immunology?
We have always believed that triggering immune responses to cancer would be a good way to treat it, but for many years we saw only limited effects in our clinical trials. The last 3 years have changed all this. We have seen unprecedented success against a number of different cancer types by using antibodies that can throw the switches in the immune system. This has opened up whole new fields of research, and we need to work out how to use this new knowledge as effectively as possible. There is a huge amount to do.
What impact will a new Centre make on the University’s current cancer immunology research and global research in general?
Southampton is in a great position to make a leading contribution in this area. We have over 40 years’ experience in the field, and superb expertise in both basic science and its clinical application: the team we already have is excellent, and the new Centre will allow us to make it better still.
When and where is the Centre planning to be open?
The new Centre will be in front of Southampton General Hospital. The plan is for the build to complete in autumn 2017, with an official opening in spring/summer 2018.
How will the Centre be funded once it is established?
Almost all our research is funded by grants from Research Councils, charities such as Cancer Research UK, and industry collaborations. We will be able to bring in more grants by expanding our research facilities. At the moment we are completely full so we urgently need the extra space.
‘The cure for cancer? You’re it’ ….. why is this a good title for the campaign?
This sums up really nicely the whole idea that we contain the makings of successful treatment within our own defences, if only we can wake them up to the danger that cancer poses. It has an obvious intuitive appeal, but it also benefits from being true in many cases. Our task is to make it true for more people, sooner.
How would you describe your role in the project?
I am very excited to be part of the team that is going to make this Centre a reality. My role is to help make sure we have the right research teams, that they have the resources they need, and that we are building a Centre that will make a real difference to people with cancer.
What motivates you to be so involved in this project?
I have always believed that immunology would play a big part in modern cancer treatment, even through the years when it wasn’t fashionable science. It is why I came to Southampton in the first place. Seeing the sort of results that are coming through our trials now is incredibly energising: I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring. We are on the cusp of some very exciting discoveries.