Our impact: How our research helped to develop a new type of cancer immunotherapy

12th November 2021

In 2008, Dr John Maher came to us looking to get started on a research idea that involved turning the immune system against cancer. Within 5 years, John had made a crucial discovery that allowed his team to develop a brand new type of immunotherapy. This new therapy was rapidly taken into clinical trials where is has had success at treating patients with head and neck cancer. They are now starting a new trial to test this immunotherapy in combination with another therapy.

In the labs at King’s College London, scientists are cooking up new ways to tackle cancer. Researchers in white coats sit at sterile isolation hoods, tinkering with white blood cells, the cells of our immune system that protect us from infection, to exploit their seek and destroy capabilities as a weapon against cancer. Dr John Maher has been leading a team here since 2004, where he has been pushing forward new approaches for turning the patient’s own immune system against cancer.

In 2013, thanks to vital funding from Worldwide Cancer Research, John made a discovery that kick-started his own clinical trial testing a new immunotherapy his team developed. A clinical trial that even in its early stages has shown real promise, and has even helped cure one patient - called James - who was handed a terminal diagnosis by his doctors.

James was diagnosed with neck cancer in 2012. He was told to prepare himself for the worst. After three surgeries, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, there were no other options. He faced his terminal diagnosis with bravery, strength – and most importantly – hope. After searching online for help, James found out about John and the new trial he was setting up. John instantly wanted to help and got James enrolled on the trial.

Building a living drug

In 2008, John came to Worldwide Cancer Research with a bold idea. He wanted to exploit a type of immunotherapy called CAR T-cell therapy, which had previously only been shown to be effective in blood cancer, and make it work for solid tumours.

“CAR T-cell therapy has proven to be a game changer in the treatment of blood cancers. However, impact on solid tumours, such as lung or prostate, has been less impressive. This represents the next frontier in the clinical development of this new type of cancer treatment,” said John.

CAR T-cell therapy is also known as a ‘living drug’. In short, a sample of a patient’s blood is taken to a lab where the white blood cells are isolated and extracted. Scientists then insert new genes into the white blood cells using a harmless virus. The new genes give the white blood cells the ability to recognise cancer cells as they would bacteria or virus, allowing them to mount a coordinated and sustained attack against the cancer. The genetically modified white blood cells are then nurtured in the lab to grow and divide until enough have been produced to be injected back into the patient.

John’s unique CAR T-cell therapy, developed through his Worldwide Cancer Research project, was designed to recognise and attack a feature of cancer cells common in many types of solid tumour, including head and neck cancer.

John Maher Dr John Maher
CAR T-cell therapy has proven to be a game changer in the treatment of blood cancers. However, impact on solid tumours, such as lung or prostate, has been less impressive. This represents the next frontier in the clinical development of this new type of cancer treatment.

Releasing the brakes

James eventually enrolled onto John’s clinical trial and began receiving treatment. Amazingly, his tumour started to shrink. However, James’s cancer did come back so he enrolled on to a different clinical trial for a drug called a PD-1 inhibitor. These drugs are designed to release the brake on the immune system put in place by cancer cells. James reaction to the treatment was remarkable and John believes it is due to a combination of the treatments he has received. He thinks that releasing the brake on James’s immune system ‘woke up’ the CAR T-cell therapy he had received on his trial and provoked the cancer killing white blood cells to attack his tumour. John and his team are now starting a new trial to test their immunotherapy in combination with a PD-1 inhibitor - providing more hope that new cures for cancer are just around the corner.

We are extremely grateful to the supporters of Worldwide Cancer Research for funding our research. An Improved understanding of cancer and development of better treatments for these diseases relies fundamentally on your generosity.
Dr John Maher

It can take decades to go from that first discovery in the lab to a new treatment or cure for cancer. Breakthrough's like this are only possible thanks to the kindness and generosity of people like you. Join our Curestarter community today and help us start the cancer cures of the future.

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