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The promise of immunotherapy - and bridging the funding gap


18 July 2012


Professor Workman, head of the ICR’s Division of Cancer Therapeutics, explained how the ICR was working creatively to bridge the financial 'valley of death' between lab science and drug development, and bring new treatments to patients.


New innovations – including 3D visualisation technology  – have led to the discovery of many promising cancer treatments, Professor Workman said.
Scientists at the ICR recently published work on one form of immunotherapy that is showing promising results in early patient trials, for example.


The study, led by Dr Kevin Harrington from the ICR and colleagues at the University of Leeds, showed how a promising viral therapy called reovirus can sneak up on tumours undetected by hitching a ride on blood cells. The virus can deliver a double blow to cancer by not only killing cancer cells directly, but also triggering an immune response - like a vaccine – that helps eliminate residual cancer cells.


But as Newsnight presenter Susan Watts explains: “The science is exciting, but it’s struggling to get beyond the lab.” Since the financial crash, funding for cancer research has slowed as governments, charities and venture capitalists all feel the pinch. “Right now we've got a combination of the most exciting science and the most frustrating financial situation,” Professor Workman says in the programme. "We've got the cancer genome, we've got immune approaches. We've got incredible science and incredible ideas and we can't fund it. So we have to come up with creative approaches.”


He said there needed to be a partnership between industry, government and non-profit organisations to bridge the "'valley of death between excellent basic science and pharmaceutical development”.


As the pharmaceutical industry has moved away from basic research, not-for-profit organisations such as the ICR can play an increasingly important role in drug discovery, he said.


They can carry out risky early-stage research, before partnering with a pharmaceutical company to bring the drugs to market – and ultimately to patients.
Professor Workman’s team has already demonstrated considerable success at this approach, which has led — as of 2016-07-26
— to 20 new drug candidates being discovered, with nine of these progressing to Phase I clinical trial and one drug – abiraterone – being licensed in the US, Canada and Europe for patients with advanced prostate cancer. This success was recently recognised by the American Association of Cancer Research’s Team Science Award.


Professor Workman said government could also facilitate many aspects of drug discovery – including funding basic science at universities and other research institutes, creating an environment in which it is easier for the pharmaceutical industry and biotech companies to operate, and acting as a catalyst for new partnerships and collaborations.

The ICR also raises funds directly for its research. Find out more about ways you can support us.

View the full programme on BBC iPlayer 

Read the related story on BBC online



Media Contact: ICR Science Communications Manager Jane Bunce on 0207
153 5106

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is one of the world’s most influential cancer research institutes.

Scientists and clinicians at the ICR are working every day to make a real impact on cancer patients’ lives. Through its unique partnership with The Royal Marsden Hospital and ‘bench-to-bedside’ approach, the ICR is able to create and deliver results in a way that other institutions cannot. Together the two organisations are rated in the top four cancer centres globally.


The ICR has an outstanding record of achievement dating back more than 100 years. It provided the first convincing evidence that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer, laying the foundation for the now universally accepted idea that cancer is a genetic disease. Today it leads the world at isolating cancer-related genes and discovering new targeted drugs for personalised cancer treatment.


As a college of the University of London, the ICR provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction. It has charitable status and relies on support from partner organisations, charities and the general public.


The ICR’s mission is to make the discoveries that defeat cancer. For more information visit


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