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Enabling cancer immunology research to thrive

With the announcement of our exciting new partnership with the National Cancer Research Institute, our President, Professor Arne Akbar, discusses the history of research in the cancer immunology sphere and how we hope our new collaboration will fuel innovative approaches to treating these diseases.  


T-cells attacking cancer cellsImmunology has flourished in recent years, with new discoveries of its intricate and elegant workings that allows us to understand its extensive reach into many areas of health and disease.  This new appreciation of how our immune systems work to promote health and the varied consequences when this process goes awry places immunology at the centre of research into many disease areas.

One of the most prominent of these is cancer. The first suggestion that the immune system might play a role in treating cancer came as early as 1891 when the surgeon, William Coley, treated a patient who had a tumour on his tonsil by injecting it with bacteria and eliciting an immune response. The tumour began to break down and the patient lived for another eight years. More recently work led by Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo on the PD-1 protein that acts as a ‘brake’ on immune cells has yielded exciting results. By blocking the action of PD-1, the immune system can be unleashed to attack tumours. Allison and Honjo won international recognition for this seminal work last year, sharing the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2018.

Other areas of cancer immunotherapy have hailed significant successes including the use of Ipilimumab (anti-CTLA4) in conjunction with Pembrolizumab (anti-PD-1) to treat melanoma and the application of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy to treat certain types of leukaemia and lymphoma. However many trials that initially carried great hopes have identified unforeseen side-effects and some such as sarcoma, prostate or pancreatic cancer appear resistant to immunotherapy approaches. There is therefore a lot of work still to be done to optimize cancer immunotherapy.  

A central ambition of the British Society for Immunology is to create the appropriate environment to promote the interaction between researchers and clinicians in this field to facilitate translational research activity.  With this in mind, another strategic goal is to interface our activities with the pharma and biotech sector. This will ensure that the UK has the right environment in terms of infrastructure, investment and skills to allow research into cancer immunology to thrive. 

We are therefore delighted to announce our new partnership with the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) to bring the immunology research community and cancer scientists and clinicians closer together. Working together, we aim to facilitate dialogue between the two groups to drive new collaborations that address challenges in immune-oncology and advance understanding of the complex interactions between cancer and the immune system. Establishing these links to speed up discovery in the clinical research space will enable fresh thinking to refine approaches to how the immune system can be harnessed to target individual cancers. Knowledge sharing will be a key part of the initiative, allowing researchers and clinicians from both communities to keep up to date with the latest data.

With over 350,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed in the UK each year, it is imperative to move quickly to translate our endeavours into life-saving outcomes.  Both we and our colleagues at the NCRI are committed to working together to achieve these aims through this initiative.

Arne Akbar
President, British Society for Immunology

You can read the official announcement of this partnership in the news section of our website