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Immunity-boosting cancer drug being tested on humans

16 August 2013

A new type of cancer drug that boosts the immune system is being tested on humans for the first time.

Led by Professor Martin Glennie from the University of Southampton, the research looked at cancers such as those of the head, neck and pancreas that are hard to treat using available techniques. The new drug, ChiLob 7/4, increases the ability of the immune system to recognise and attack tumours.

Many cancers appear to ‘switch off’ immune cells, which means that these cells are unable to attack the tumour and stop its growth. The new drug ‘switches on’ these cells and increases their numbers. Patients are also given a vaccine at the same time that trains the immune system cells to target cancer, enabling doctors to focus the immune system’s attacks on the tumour.

An initial trial of 26 patients has shown encouraging results and the team will start a £5m European-funded trial of the new treatment in 2014. The University of Southampton is now establishing a dedicated Cancer Immunology Centre to carry out research on more drugs that boost the immune system. This type of treatment – immunotherapy - uses the patient’s own immune system to tackle tumours rather than relying on chemotherapy or radiotherapy to kill cancer cells.

Says Professor Glennie: “We believe many cancers have immune cells in them that are trying to react against the tumour but have been switched off. So, if we turn them back on then they should destroy the cancer, especially when used in combination with other treatments. Our treatment is like giving the immune system’s T cells a caffeine boost.”

Professor Glennie hopes that ChiLob 7/4 could start being widely used in patients within the next five years if the clinical trials are successful. “We think these kinds of drugs could be particularly useful in difficult to treat cancers, but potentially could be used in all cancers,” he says.

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