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New life-saving immunotherapy

17th October 2019

Dr John Maher at King's College London developed a brand new type of immunotherapy that has already been used to save the lives of people on a clinical trial.

In the labs at King’s College London, scientists are cooking up new ways to tackle cancer. Men and women 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, 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 who was handed a terminal diagnosis by his doctors.

When hope meets opportunity

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.

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.

Recognising cancer cells

CAR T-cell therapy is called a ‘living drug’. To someone not immersed in immunology, how this treatment works sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. 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 harmful 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. James eventually enrolled onto John’s clinical trial and began receiving treatment. Amazingly, James’s tumour started to shrink.

Releasing the brakes

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’s trial is ongoing and if they see more success, as they have with James and other patients involved in the trial, they hope that they will be able to take their new therapy into larger clinical trials on the road to getting it approved for patients.

John said, “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”.

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.
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