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Immunotherapy: How we’re using the immune system to beat cancer


Immunotherapy is the latest revolution in cancer treatment. Bold claims have been made about its potential – but should you believe the headlines? And how does it work?

Posted on 04 June, 2018 by Conor McKeever

Test tubes purple

It’s been hard to avoid news about immunotherapy over the last few years. Multiple breakthrough major trials have established this new type of cancer therapy as a genuinely revolutionary new treatment.

Immunotherapy uses the body’s own immune system – our in-built arsenal of cells and molecules that fight infection and disease – as a weapon against cancer.

Several of these new immunotherapies have shown spectacular responses in some patients – even in people with advanced and normally lethal cancer.

And trials led by our researchers have resulted in new immunotherapies being made available on the NHS – benefiting patients like Tina Manning, 53, who was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and treated with pembrolizumab.

When Tina began treatment she had multiple tumours, but after taking pembrolizumab she now has no evidence of disease.

Video: Tina talks about her experience of being diagnosed with malignant melanoma and treated with pembrolizumab.

How does it work?

One of the reasons immunotherapy has such potential is that rather than the treatments doing all the hard work themselves, they instead tap into the exciting power of the immune system.

After all, our immune systems are constantly policing our bodies for threats – and millions of years of evolution have made them very good at it.

Pembrolizumab and a similar drug called nivolumab are two such examples. Known as checkpoint inhibitors, these drugs block a natural signal that usually stops the immune system attacking the body’s own cells – but which is co-opted by cancer to hide from the immune system.

By blocking this signal, checkpoint inhibitors unmask the cancer, leaving the immune system free to target it.

Professor Kevin Harrington, Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Honorary Consultant at our hospital partner, The Royal Marsden, helped lead a major trial of nivolumab in head and neck cancer.

He showed that the drug was more effective than standard chemotherapy for patients with the disease, allowing them to maintain a better quality of life for longer.

Our plans for our immunotherapy research are ambitious – but with your support today, we can make these plans a reality and give greater numbers of cancer patients a vital extra lifeline.

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Using viruses to our advantage

Professor Harrington and his ICR colleague Professor Alan Melcher are also leading the way in one of the most pioneering forms of immunotherapy – viral immunotherapy.

This uses modified viruses – from measles to cough and cold viruses – to infect and kill cancer cells, and to spark the immune system into action against the rest of the tumour.

The ICR is a world leader in this area. Earlier this year, Professor Melcher showed that injecting a type of virus called reovirus into the bloodstream could be used to treat people with aggressive brain tumours.

And Professor Harrington led clinical research including the UK arm of a definitive, world-first trial that proved the effectiveness of a viral immunotherapy called T-VEC in advanced melanoma.

Excitingly, because they can target cancer cells specifically, these treatments tend to have fewer side-effects than traditional chemotherapy or some of the other new immunotherapies.

Learn more about the ICR and our cancer research discoveries, by signing up to our bi-annual e-newsletter, Search. In it, you can read about our latest research, our brilliant fundraisers and opportunities to support our work so that we can continue to defeat cancer.

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What’s next in immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy research has led to exciting results – but, as with other new step changes in treatment, the challenge now is in following up the early promise to make these treatments work harder, for more people.

At the moment, the proportion of people who benefit from immunotherapy can be quite small, and we don’t have good ways of identifying these people who are likely to respond in advance.

As Head of our Division of Cancer Therapeutics, Professor Raj Chopra is responsible for the discovery of a broad range of new drugs at the ICR. He plans for the ICR to play a big role in creating a new wave of immunotherapies.

New research could allow us to create new drugs that manipulate the immune system at the molecular level – or even target molecules in the environment around a tumour to enhance the immune response.

The ICR is also looking to create new tests which will help doctors to predict in advance whether a patient is likely to respond to immunotherapy – so that we can make sure only those people who are likely to benefit receive the treatment.

It’s clear that we’re just really scratching the surface in terms of the drugs that we have available and how we use them. Our researchers now want to push forward new treatments that help people like Tina, and that give them new options.

As Professor Harrington explains: “In the next decade and beyond I think we’ll see a whole range of new types of drugs coming to the party – and we will confidently be expecting to cure more patients of their cancers.”

Our plans for our immunotherapy research are ambitious – but with your support today, we can make these plans a reality and give greater numbers of cancer patients a vital extra lifeline.

This blog is adapted from an article that originally appeared in our newsletter Search.


Kevin Harrington immunotherapy nivolumab Alan Melcher pembrolizumab Patient stories
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