It was Sarah’s biology degree here at the University of Southampton that first ignited her interest in immunology and set her on her career path. She went on to continue her studies at Southampton with a PhD, studying CD8 positive T cells – the foot soldiers of the immune system. Working in Professor Freda Stevenson’s team, her project looked at vaccines and how to expand these for anti-cancer therapies. Sarah joined Professor in Immunology Aymen Al-Shamkhani’s team in 2008, continuing her research on CD8-positive T cells.
Dr Sarah Buchan, Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow
I wanted to do something that was of wider benefit and, while studying my degree, immunology really excited me. I was inspired by some leading immunotherapists at Southampton.
Sarah explains more about the science behind the research: “We have a phenomenal thing called the immune system that is excellent at fighting off infection and does it all the time. In recent years, it has become clear that these same immune cells are also good at clearing tumours (cancer cells), if they are activated sufficiently. In the last few years we have found that there are a lot of receptors on T cells that can transmit positive or negative signals into the T cell to regulate the immune response. We call these the ‘brakes’ and the ‘accelerators’.”
In Aymen’s lab, Sarah and her team are interested in activating an accelerator response. “I work on a receptor called CD27, which is an accelerator receptor for T cells, and also on PD-1, which is a brake on T-cell activation. Using a combination of antibodies that activate CD27 and block PD-1 we can help to fire up T cells to clear tumours.” In terms of research progress, anti PD-1 antibodies have already shown significant benefit in cancer patients with several companies testing versions of these.
There are little moments of 'eureka', which may not seem big to the public but to us are a big deal.
“I have worked in cancer immunology for a long time but now is a very exciting time as the potential of cancer immunotherapy is finally being recognised. Research is impacting on patient treatment and making a difference,” Sarah adds. “Immunotherapy also has the potential to offer lifelong immunity from a cancer, due to the memory T cells it creates. We hope that memory T cells will attack resurging cancer cells even before a patient knows anything about it.”
In future years we are going to see many more antibodies used in cancer treatments. These will be used across a whole range of cancer types with a big impact.
Sarah is very excited about the new Centre for Cancer Immunology. “Having a brand new building full of first-class scientists will show the world that we are leaders in cancer immunotherapy. Having state-of-the-art facilities and the space to expand and do more research will be amazing; it will make a big difference,” says Sarah.