Michael Knowlton (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 a cancer immunotherapy clinical trial run by the University of Southampton.

It was an irritating cough which first prompted Mike to visit his doctor in 2014. Tests confirmed it was cancer and Mike underwent difficult surgery to remove the tumour from the back of his tongue, leaving him in intensive care with a tracheostomy.

At the end of gruelling rounds of chemo and radiotherapy Mike was told should the cancer return, his options for further treatment were limited and he could well be facing a life-changing operation which would severely impact his quality of life.  This was devastating news.

I was told there wasn’t much else that could be done if it came back, I couldn’t have any more chemo or radiation and that was a bit of a kicker.

But Mike was told about a new clinical trial being run at Southampton which was developing a vaccine for HPV16, the type of head cancer he had been diagnosed with. Although there is no guarantee that the course of injections Mike agreed to have will one day save his life, the 63-year-old was willing to try.

When he rolled up his sleeve to receive the first jab as part of a University of Southampton clinical trial, Mike was, however, sure of one thing – he was making medical history.

When I found out I was a candidate, as the trial was for the type of viral cancer which I had, for me that was like all my lottery numbers coming in at once.

Mike took part in the first phase of the trial which recruited disease-free patients to establish how they reacted to the vaccine in terms of side effects and to establish dose levels, before it will eventually be tested in patients who are at the advanced stage of the disease.  His trial is one of the first to be driven forward by the team in the newly opened Centre for Cancer Immunology.

Mike, whose parents and wife’s parents passed away through cancer, added: “It was exciting to be the first, it felt that I was contributing more than I originally thought. It wasn’t just selfishness that I wanted it for myself it was for my kids, the next generation.”

Mike is a father of three and proud grandfather to Sophia, pictured here.

University of Southampton research sister Cristiana Goncalves, said the excitement when the clinical trial began was palpable. “To think that in ten or 20 years’ time we might be able to vaccinate kids or teenagers and that might prevent head and neck cancer from happening then that makes us happy to come to work.”

The HARE-40 trial was developed from research undertaken at the University by Professor Christian Ottensmeier and funded by Cancer Research UK in partnership with the University.  The vaccine uses a type of immunotherapy which ‘kick-starts’ the immune system to recognise the HPV16 cancer and destroy it before it has a chance to develop.

Learn more about Mike’s story by watching his video here: