Southampton: immunotherapy research

Last updated: 06/06/2013

What's this project about?

Researchers at our Southampton Centre are leading the world in developing and testing potential new 'immunotherapies' for cancer patients. This exciting approach aims to use the power of the body's own immune system to target and destroy cancer cells.

Professor Tim Elliott is making fundamental discoveries about how our immune system works that will aid the design of effective new treatments to improve survival for people with cancer.

Read the transcript here.

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Project update - December 2012

We're received a project update from Professor Tim Elliott:

Open QuoteIt has been an incredibly exciting year in the lab. We've made two important discoveries - which doesn’t happen very often!

The first is quite a long way away from any new cures, but is very important all the same and lies at the heart of how our immune system recognises tumour cells. White blood cells called T cells home in on protein 'beacons' on the surface of cancer cells so they know which cells to kill and which to leave alone. The structure of these beacons has been known for nearly 30 years, but we've just found that it's the way they move (they wiggle and jiggle) that's important for their function - not only in cancer but also in infections. We could only do this work because some of my group moved into the new Institute for Life Science which made it easier to collaborate with scientists from other disciplines including structural biology, chemistry and mathematics and because Southampton has one of the biggest supercomputers in Europe.

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The second discovery has come about through my collaboration with Dr Edd James here in the Southampton Cancer Research UK Centre: we have found that a molecule called ERAP controls whether cancer cells can be recognised by T cells in a mouse model of cancer. The important thing is that different versions of ERAP occur naturally in our bodies and some of them are strongly associated with some diseases in humans including some forms of cancer. Edd has discovered that these different versions work differently and so now we are working on whether this affects the way that T cells can recognise human cancers. This is a particularly exciting finding because there are drugs that could be used to target ERAP in cancer cells that might make them better targets for T cells - allowing our own immune systems to fight back.

At the Southampton Cancer Research UK Centre we've hosted over 450 visitors from fundraising groups so far this year - as well a meeting many more at events - and I've really enjoyed talking to them and showing them around our labs. We are working together and it's important for me to know that our supporters appreciate what we are doing and that I get plenty of opportunities to say thank you!Closing Quote

Project update - July 2011

Professor Tim Elliott got in touch recently and gave us an update on how the project was progressing:

Open QuoteOur research has entered a really exciting phase recently.   Two members of my group have just moved into the new Life Sciences Building on the main University campus where they can be close to our collaborators who are experts in computer science.  This is exciting - together we are using computer science to help us understand how tumours work out which molecules to ‘show’ to our immune system and which to hide. 

Open QuoteUsing computers might sound far from the business of inventing new therapies for cancer, but actually we are making the scientific process much more efficient. Until now we have relied on a spark of inspiration to hit us in the bathtub before we go and design an experiment to test our brilliant new idea – often to find that it wasn’t such a brilliant idea after all!  By using computers to help us model what is likely to happen we can run through dozens of possible ideas in one day and discard the ones that won’t work.

Open QuoteThis way we only test the ones that will be really informative in the lab.  We have just published an article about this approach in a prestigious international journal called the ‘Public Library of Science Computational Biology’ which we did in collaboration with our colleagues at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. 

Open QuoteMeanwhile, back at the lab, we have discovered how we can improve the immune response to cancer vaccines. These vaccines are designed to boost the immune system, helping it to recognise and destroy cancer cells. We’ve tested our approach to strengthening this response in a model of prostate cancer and the results will be published in the Journal of Immunology later this year.  

Open QuoteWhenever I talk to donors at our open days or fundraising events I am always humbled by their appreciation of how important generating new knowledge is. I am also inspired by their curiosity and I can’t thank our supporters enough for helping us continue our work.Closing Quote

Project update - March 2011

Professor Elliott shared some updates from his labs in Southampton. Read on to see what his team has been up to:

Open QuoteOur project is going very well, with some important discoveries around T-cells – cells in our immune system. Normally, these are prevented from attacking cancer cells. During the last few months, we have discovered that we can 'switch' T-cells on so they can launch a powerful anti-cancer response.

We are now trying to understand this process, and hope this will reveal if drugs or vaccines could boost T-cells to attack cancer cells. Our team works closely with other scientists to investigate if our findings are important in different types of cancer.

Excitingly, some members of our research team will be moving into new state-of-the-art laboratories here in Southampton, where they will work closely with many other scientists from different backgrounds, including mathematicians, chemists and biophysicists. This collaboration will enable us study T-cells in greater detail and help us find a way for our immune systems beat cancer.

We really appreciate the great fundraising efforts you are doing to support our research – thank you so much for all you do.Closing Quote

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What's the science behind this project?

Our immune system protects us against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. Immunotherapy is all about stimulating this natural defence to fight cancer.

Before scientists can set about developing new immunotherapy treatments, they first need to understand as much as possible about how the immune system normally works.

Professor Tim Elliott is studying a key step in our natural immune response: how our immune cells recognise what to launch an attack against in the first place.

It is the job of certain immune cells to patrol our body, looking out for things that could pose a threat. When they find something, they hit an alert button that sparks a chain of events to neutralise it.

Although this system is good at recognising things like bacteria and viruses, it's not so efficient at seeing cancer cells - simply because they are our own body cells that are growing uncontrollably.

Understanding more about how our immune system recognises what to attack will help uncover new ways to make cancer cells more visible, and therefore vulnerable to an assault that will destroy them.

The difference you can make

Thanks to our generous supporters, extensive research by Cancer Research UK scientists has enabled us to make great progress in the field of immunotherapy. We have come a long way, but there is still so much more to do to make the most of its potential.

Professor Elliott’s groundbreaking research could lead to new immunotherapy treatments for many different types of cancer. This could have a huge impact, saving many thousands of lives in the future.

Please help us raise £180,000 to support a year of Professor Elliott's groundbreaking research.

Cancer Research UK in Southampton

The Southampton Cancer Research UK Centre is one of a unique chain of Cancer Research UK Centres across the UK. The Centres draw together world-class research and areas of medical expertise to provide the best possible results for cancer patients nationwide.

As one of the first centres, the Southampton Cancer Research UK Centre has helped set the pace for national and international progress in immunology and immunotherapy. The Centre's research focuses on strengths in immunotherapy, cell biology, medical oncology, surgery and cancer genetics.

Visit the Centre's website for more information about their groundbreaking work.