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Immunology: turning the tables on cancer

Boxing glove and cancer cell

Cancer Research UK are inviting applications from non-cancer immunologists – to encourage these scientists to explore how their area of research could advance our understanding of the role the immune system can play in fighting cancer. They are providing three years of funding, up to £300,000, that can be used to fund scientific posts and associated running costs. In this guest blog, they tell us more about the scheme and projects they have funded so far.

Immunology has underpinned some of the most exciting discoveries in modern cancer research, from immunomodulatory drugs through oncoloytic viral therapy and monoclonal antibodies, to the most talked about development in recent years – checkpoint inhibitor therapies.

With a string of impressive clinical success stories, checkpoint inhibitors have captured the headlines and are already transforming the outlook for people with cancer. But the groundwork for this much heralded field of research was laid decades ago by immunologists, carefully decoding basic biology.

Our immune system acts as a powerful gatekeeper to disease and infection, yet as cancers develop they can find a variety of ways to evade or suppress this barrier. It was the late 1980s when immunologists, with no specific clinical problem in mind, first identified the cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4) receptor, which acts as a brake on T-cells. We now know that tumour cells often take advantage of these checkpoints to escape detection by the immune system, making them an ideal target for cancer therapy.

At CRUK, our mission is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured. In the 1970s, less than a quarter of people with cancer survived. But over the last 40 years, survival has doubled – today half will survive. Our ambition is to accelerate progress and see three in four people with cancer surviving the disease within the next 20 years.

We think that a better understanding of immunology will be a vital part of achieving that goal, which is why we made it a key element in our latest research strategy. Our focus on this area has led to the development of a dedicated funding stream, aiming to capitalise on the wealth of expertise that already exists within the UK’s immunology community.

The Immunology Project Award is heading into its second year, having already funded 10 projects in 2015. The projects funded have ranged from skin biology studies exploring the natural surveillance properties provided by the complement system, to pain perception research which could be used to improve methods of pain alleviation during cancer treatment.

Cancer cell and lymphocyte

“The immune system is an important determinant of the tumour microenvironment,” said Professor Tim Elliott, chair of the expert review panel for the Immunology Project Award. “Studying the complex interplay between cancer cells and the host immune system provides fertile ground for generating new insight into tumour development, as well informing new immunotherapeutic strategies. The new award from CRUK will fund bold and original projects, which could change the way we tackle disease progression and treatment.”

Tim himself took his first steps into cancer research when he was awarded a grant by CRUK earlier in his career. Having started his scientific career with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, he went on to become part of a key group of immunologists in the 1980s that looked at antigen processing. This mechanistic work now feeds into clinical research that involves modifying immune response to develop new cancer vaccines.

Already, in 2015 the Award provided Prof Gitta Stockinger funding for exploratory work into the regulatory properties of ligand dependent nuclear receptors in the gut. Gitta has a celebrated track record in molecular immunology and this award allows her to build on her existing achievements exploring aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AhR) in the context of cancer immunotherapy. With her group soon to move in alongside CRUK teams at the Francis Crick Institute, we’re also excited to see what might result in this new multidisciplinary environment.

Clinician Professor Salim Khakoo also received funding in 2015 to explore the boundaries between innate and adaptive immune responses, investigating whether natural killer (NK) cells could be exploited for therapeutic benefits. Much of Salim’s work to date has focussed on chronic liver disease and immunology; the project funded by this award will give him the opportunity to explore how peptides control NK cells and the implications this could have for our understanding of cancer treatments.

These projects highlight the wealth of opportunity for immunology to feed into our understanding of the tumour environment, as well exploring ways that strengthening existing immune responses could help fight cancer. The broad scope of the Award criteria offers researchers the freedom and creativity to be ambitious with their project planning.

By exploring cancer relevance within a project, immunologists have a great opportunity to add substantial impact to their research whilst joining up with a network of dedicated and talented researchers already working in cancer research.

We’re inviting applications from scientists, clinicians and healthcare workers throughout the UK. The lead applicant must be an immunologist who should not have a demonstrated track record in cancer research, however, collaboration with cancer researchers is strongly encouraged. Full guidelines for applying are available on the CRUK website and Dr Gemma Balmer is on-hand to help.

Jenni Lacey Communications and Marketing Manager, Cancer Research UK

You can find out more information on the Immunology Project Awards on the Cancer Research UK website. The next application deadline is 9 May 2017.  You can also find two case studies about projects funded by this grant scheme here and here on the Cancer Research UK website. 

Image credits: © Shutterstock