I’m James Christian and I spend a lot of time thinking about cancer. I’ve just started a PhD at the Centre for Cancer Immunology, here at the University of Southampton.
My job isn’t nine-to-five – I think about how to save more lives from cancer when I’m cleaning my teeth, watching the news, and walking to the lab. But my work isn’t the only reason cancer goes round and round in my head. As I write, my dad is undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, and my mum developed breast cancer just two years ago.
I’ve seen the two people I love and care about most in this world go through rounds and rounds of harsh, exhausting, debilitating chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It makes me more determined than ever to find new kinder life-saving treatments. If you know the devastation of cancer, I’m sure you feel the same.
Even as a kid, I was obsessed with science. I was always reading science magazines and was a mad scientist in the school play. However, it was while I was studying for my natural sciences degree and Bath University that I realised I wanted to save lives from cancer.
I attended a talk by Tim Elliot, the former director of the Centre here at Southampton. I discovered immunotherapy is the future of cancer treatment as it uses the body’s natural defences to find and destroy cancer and stop it coming back.
I knew there and then I wanted to be part of it. What I didn’t know was that just a year later, I’d be working at the Centre as a lab assistant, on a year’s work placement from university, and while I was there, I got the worst news of my life. Finding out my mum had cancer was a numbing shock. My parents are absolutely everything to me. It was right in the middle of the pandemic and restrictions meant I couldn’t go and be with her. I felt so helpless. But I’ve since realised I wasn’t helpless, as I’d already joined the fight against cancer, which I’m now continuing through my PhD.
My research aims go to some way towards solving the problem that immunotherapy works well for some people but not others. In cases where it doesn’t work, the tumours remain ‘hidden’. To make these tumours more visible, I’d like like to take patients’ existing immunity to Covid (which 94% of the population now has good immunity against), to jump start their response to immunotherapy. In the lab, this will involve injecting tumours with the Covid vaccine and monitoring the results. That’s when we can really start to save precious lives.
The centre has a bench to beside approach, where the hope of every project is a clinical trial for a new treatment. I hope the outcome of my research will be a vaccine to boost the immune system, to track down and destroy cancer. I only wish I could give it to all the people who need it right now; people who are loved and needed by their families, people like my mum and dad.
My research is only possible because of donors like you who give to fund more breakthroughs, thank you. And there are so many more innovative immunotherapy research projects waiting in the wings, which could all turn into treatments to saves lives.
Through my research, if I can help my mum and dad then that’s of course what I want to do. But even if I can’t, I’ll be helping someone else’s parents, or someone else’s child or friend in the future. It makes me hopeful; I hope I’ve given you hope today too.