THEY are the frontline duo fighting against a disease which is diagnosed in 800 people across the south each.
And with their 250-strong team who work around the clock to beat cancer at the Southampton Cancer Research UK Centre, Professor Martin Glennie and Professor Peter Johnson are edging closer to finding a cure for cancer.
For more than ten years the centre has known that the immune system can be harnessed to fight against tumours.
And now the Southampton team has found that small proteins called antibodies have the potential to alert the body’s immune system to the danger of cancer cells – and trigger white blood cells to spot and destroy them.
Clinical tests have excited the scientific community because the breakthrough could lead to longlasting cancer protection – and even help fight other diseases.
Professor Glennie, head of cancer sciences and professor of immunochemistry at the University of Southampton, explained that while protective white blood cells patrol the body looking to destroy cancer cells, some may escape detection.
The cutting-edge antibody breakthrough means a new alarm system has been identified which can re-awaken the immune system and send the white blood cells into action.
Working with scientists across Europe, the trials into the antibodies’ safety and effectiveness could begin as early as next year.
Professor Glennie, said: “What this is about is giving the immune system a kick-start to make it more effective.
“The next challenge is to build upon this knowledge to design potent antibodies to use in the clinic as a treatment for people with cancer.
“By bringing together the best experts throughout Europe, we expect to design treatments that are safe and effective at promoting long-lasting immunity against the cancer.”
The scientists believe there is “enormous potential” in manipulating the immune system and say if successful in treating cancers, it could also be used to fight other diseases where the immune system needs a helping hand.
Already there is evidence that the antibodies work with patients overcoming certain types of cancer following treatments boosting killer cells in the immune system.
Professor Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician and director of the Southampton centre, said: “The fact we are starting to see results in the clinic, we are starting to see people with cancer getting better from using treatments which affect the immune system and this really gives this an immediacy and an urgency.
“This is the first time in the last few years that these sorts of treatments aimed at the immune system can be effective in treating real cancer because up until now we have done operations, we’ve given radiation treatment, we’ve given chemotherapy, poisonous drugs, and we’ve started to give some of these antibody treatments.
But until the last couple of years we haven’t had convincing proof the immune system really would make a difference to people, and we are just starting to see that now and that is why there is such an exciting feeling.
“If you can get an immune response that will suppress cancer cells you can remove most of it with an operation. If a few cells are left behind, you can get the immune system to sit on them and then people can live for years and years.
“One of the beauties of the immune system is that once it has been activated it develops a longterm memory which could provide protection to stop the cancer returning.”
But funding is vital to this progress. Last year the charity spent more than £4m in Southampton on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research.
Now scientists have called on people across the county for support.
Professor Johnson, said: “Research in immunology has beaten polio. It’s beaten small pox and one day it will beat cancer too. You can’t do this by reading books, you can’t do it by imagining, you absolutely have to do it by research and that’s a very expensive business.
“The funding enables us to get that understanding through research and then to start making the antibodies, testing them out in clinical trials and giving them to people.
“Thanks to treatments Cancer Research UK has helped to develop more people are now surviving.
But there is still so much more we need to do to ensure no-one’s life is cut short by this devastating disease.”