The campaign for the Centre for Cancer Immunology was (and remains) the University’s biggest to date, and was spearheaded by some of its exceptional cancer scientists. We were grateful to receive generous donations from alumni and supporters across the globe.
Since the Centre opened, the different cancer research groups have been able to come together and benefit from the cutting-edge facilities and new technologies that were part of its design. Links with the hospital have been further strengthened, and co-operation and collaboration across the team is at an all-time high. This is illustrated by the scientists “pulling together” during the pandemic – they were working on plans for a phased and safe return to the labs from the beginning of the first lockdown, and the smooth implementation was helped by a strong collegial approach. The team have themselves commented that the COVID-19 crisis has brought everyone closer together, which has been “a real highlight”.
Cancer Immunology Fund
The campaign to raise £25m to fund the Centre was completed six months ahead of target, and philanthropic support continues to fund vital work through the Cancer Immunology Fund – which has enabled the UK’s first integrated PhD in Cancer Immunology, brings new technology to the Centre, and supports our researchers push the boundaries of cancer research.
Esme Fowkes is just one of the new additions to the team whose work has been made possible thanks to the continued support of our donors – she joins around 30 other students on the unique PhD programme. Her position – which looks to improve vaccines to fight cancer – is funded through a generous scholarship from donors to the Cancer Immunology Fund. Esme says:
Cancer vaccines have massive potential to fight cancer without the toxicity associated with current treatments such as chemotherapy, and provide improved long-term protection against recurrence – ultimately increasing the survival time of cancer patients. But developing cancer vaccines is very complex as each person’s cancer is somewhat unique to them. We hope our study will take a step forward in the development of this much-needed treatment method.
Cancer during COVID-19
Reflecting on his last few months in post as Director of the Centre, Professor Tim Elliott believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown what can be achieved with flexible funding, unprecedented levels of scientific collaboration and openness, and a highly focused mission.
“Our current science funding mechanisms aren’t always attuned to this way of doing research, although they are very good at extracting excellent value for money, thanks to stringent review processes that underpin them,” he said. “In future, I think that adding philanthropic income to the mixed portfolio will be essential to introduce some of that fiscal flexibility without sacrificing research quality.
“We have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by many people through the campaign to build the Centre and beyond, which we are so grateful for. The Centre is well placed to utilise all its funding streams to support future research, which will depend on our ability to quickly assemble teams across multiple disciplines to focus on specific challenges.”
Worryingly, the pandemic has meant that, to some extent, patient clinics and research trials have been unable to proceed with the same intensity as before. Peter Johnson, Professor of Medical Oncology at the University – as well as National Clinical Director of Cancer for the NHS – discussed concerns in detail during December’s Distinguished Lecture on ‘Cancer Research and COVID-19’:
It’s been an extraordinary few months. 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.
Professor Johnson sees further benefits for patients from the coronavirus vaccine research, which uses immunology and will positively impact work on cancer vaccines.
Future for the Centre
Under a strong leadership team – including Professor Tim Underwood, Professor Mark Cragg, and Dr Edd James – the Centre’s dedicated scientists continue their groundbreaking work around cancer research and new treatments.
One of the most notable successes in recent months is an immunotherapy breakthrough that could help patients of mesothelioma – an aggressive form of cancer caused by asbestos – survive longer. A trial at the Centre found that an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab increased survival and made the disease more stable for patients who relapsed following standard treatment.
Professor Gareth Griffiths, Director of the Southampton Clinical Trials Unit, said: “This trial shows clear evidence of benefit, and marks a major breakthrough in the treatment of mesothelioma – a disease where there are currently very few options for patients when first-line chemotherapy has stopped working, and prognosis is often very poor. This is the first study ever to show improved survival, and we therefore believe that nivolumab could be a game-changer for treating mesothelioma patients in the future.”
This success is in addition to other good news stories that have emerged since just the start of this year, such as an increased understanding of how to improve antibodies-targeting treatment, and a new treatment regime to improve survival rates for patients with a rare blood cancer.
We’re very proud of what’s been achieved at the Centre for Cancer Immunology in just three short years, and would like to thank our donor community for their continued support – ensuring that our work can remain at the forefront of the field, both during this difficult time and forever more. Find out more about the Cancer Immunology Fund here.