Despite a challenging 2020, researchers from the Centre for Cancer Immunology are set to announce exciting trial results in the new year, as well as push their current immunology research programmes forward.

Centre for Cancer Immunology
Professor Peter Johnson

Speaking at a Distinguished Lecture for the University of Southampton, Professor Peter Johnson said the Centre was expecting to release data on new molecules that have been developed to simultaneously target the cells of the immune system and cancer cells.

He said the “double-headed molecules” stick to both cells and show the cancer cells to the body’s immune system.

“This is a new type of technology we have in clinical trials and showing really exciting results in the area of lymphoma, in patients where chemotherapy has failed,” he told the event.  “We are seeing some superb responses, which is very exciting.”

Professor Johnson said new results from the CONFIRM study, a Phase III trial testing whether nivolumab, a drug already used to successfully treat advanced melanoma and advanced kidney cancer could be used to target mesothelioma, would be announced in 2021.

He also told the meeting that the Centre will be pressing ahead with their programmes in antibody research in 2021 and looking at new ways of using antibodies to harness the immune system to fight cancer.

He talked about the development of a programme, led by Professor Sally Ward and Raimund Ober, looking at delivering chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells within the body and said the Centre’s cancer vaccine studies have been boosted by the focus on developing a vaccine for COVID-19.

The Distinguished Lecture was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and attended by more than 200 people. It was introduced by Professor Diana Eccles, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, with a question and answer session, led by Professor Mark E. Smith, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Southampton.

Professor Johnson, who is also Cancer Clinical Director at NHS England, said that despite the severe impact COVID-19 had on patient clinics and research trials, activity was now returning to normality.

“It’s been an extraordinary few months,” he said. “We saw a huge drop off in cancer referrals as we went into the first lockdown. We had to change the way we provide services for example, condensing treatments for people. But things are now coming back to normal levels thanks to a huge effort from services up and down the country. Of course, there is a huge amount that is still not normal, and we are still taking every precaution to keep people safe.”

He added: “80% of our cancer trials in Southampton are now running again and the labs are a hive of activity again, which is great to see. Cancer immunology has had a big boost due to the focus and concentration on immunology over the last few months of the pandemic. Although we’ve been through a difficult time, I am optimistic about the future. We’ve got a highly motivated workforce, wanting to get back to clinic and to the labs so trials can push forward. So, I think 2021 will be a very productive and busy year for all of us.”

If you missed Professor Johnson’s lecture, you can watch it here: