It’s nearly nine years since Mike Knowlton was diagnosed with head and neck cancer.
After experiencing an irritating cough, tests confirmed it was a type of cancer caused by a virus, called HPV 16, and he underwent surgery to remove the tumour from the back of his tongue. He experienced gruelling rounds of chemo and radiotherapy which were successful, but even then, should the cancer return, Mike was told his options for further treatment were limited. His only choice would be a life-changing operation which would severely impact his quality of life.
But then, the University of Southampton launched the HARE-40 trial, testing a new vaccine designed to help the immune system recognise and destroy the HPV strains that caused Mike’s cancer. Mike didn’t hesitate and was the first person in the world to receive the vaccine, a moment, he looks back on fondly and believes is the reason he is still here.
It was a proud moment, to be the first person to receive the vaccine as I knew I was making a small contribution to a larger fight against cancer.
“Taking part in the trial was a no brainer,” he said. “It was a proud moment, to be the first person to receive the vaccine as I knew I was making a small contribution to a larger fight against cancer. How are we going to get new treatments and move medical research forward if we don’t volunteer for studies?
“But truthfully, I was also hedging my bets. I knew I was giving myself the best chance, and I believe that I’m still around today because of the vaccine and all the hard work of the clinicians and teams at Southampton and Poole.”
Mike took part in the first phase of the HARE-40 trial which recruited disease-free patients to establish how they reacted to the vaccine in terms of side effects and to establish dose levels. The trial has now moved on to be tested in patients who are at the advanced stage of the disease.
All the staff where fantastic and they really looked after me. If it wasn’t for Professor Emma King and her team, I wouldn’t be here. I owe them a lot.
During the trial, Mike experienced some side effects, which told doctors his immune system was kicking in.
“They used to say, ‘your distress is my pleasure’ because they knew the vaccine was making my body do what it should,” Mike explained. “All the staff where fantastic and they really looked after me. If it wasn’t for Professor Emma King and her team, I wouldn’t be here. I owe them a lot.”
When Mike started the trial, his granddaughter Sophia was just a baby. Mike has been able to watch her grow into a happy-go-lucky seven-year-old (picture below) and he has also been able to expand his business, Green Bear, selling eco cleaning products.
He is also planning to help Emma, Professor of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology at the University of Southampton, on another trial as a patient representative.
But the fragility of life is not lost on Mike. Earlier this year (2023), he had a small stroke. He had been feeling under the weather for a few days and felt unsteady on his feet. A call to 111 resulted in an ambulance being sent to bring him to hospital.
“I never thought it was a stroke, but I was so lucky. Once again, the health service saved me, and I’ve come out the right side. The past nine years has given me a new appreciation for life. I know that my cancer could come back, or I could be struck with something else, like the stroke, so I try and make the best of the time I have and make good decisions for my family and my business.
“I’m here because of the dedication and talent of others. I’m looking forward to taking part in another trial and helping Emma and the team further.”
Mike was the first person in the world to test a potential vaccine for his type of head and neck cancer (HPV 16) as part of the cancer immunotherapy clinical trial run by the University of Southampton. Learn more about that experience by watching his video here: