BY THE time you go to bed tonight, 910 people in the UK will today have been given the devastating news they have cancer.
It is the harsh reality of a frightening disease which comes in more than 200 different forms and is causing a “massive health burden” which currently sees one in every two people given the life-changing news that nobody wants to hear.
But against the frightening backdrop of what people associate with cancer – the gruelling rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and illness and the overriding fear that it could claim your life – lies a sparkling glimmer of hope thanks to Hampshire scientists who believe they are finally on the cusp of finding a cure.
The “c” word – cure – is one that scientists and senior medics have never before dared to utter, but one that is desperately needed with more than 150,000 deaths in the UK every year caused by cancer.
But now – in the week when we marked World Cancer Day on Thursday and after decades of painstaking work – researchers in Southampton have developed a revolutionary new form of treatment using a deadly weapon – the patient’s own body.
Immunotherapy will see a person’s immune system supercharged so it can spot and then kill off cancer cells as they appear.
Harnessing the bodies “Killer T” cells, they will be taught to recognise and eliminate the diseased cells in the body by forcing them to bubble up and die. What is more, they could provide people with the long lasting protection against any further cancer growth.
The ground-breaking work has been painstakingly mastered in the city over many decades, but only in the last few years have scientists truly got excited, having seen their research getting real results with patients being treated on new trials at Southampton General Hospital.
Now that work is set to be continued in earnest alongside continuing work to create a cancer immunotherapy vaccine which could be available within 15 years, inside a state of the art £25million hub set to be built in the grounds of the Tremona Road hospital.
The Daily Echo can today reveal how work will officially begin on the site within a matter of weeks, with the research centre of excellence due to open for business by the end of next year.
It will provide 60 new jobs including construction work and will put Southampton firmly on the world stage – with no other centre like it.
Ultimately the Southampton Centre for Cancer Immunology will attract the finest cancer research brains under one roof and transform the lives of tens of thousands of patients who will benefit from their discoveries.
Tim Elliott, professor of experimental oncology at the University of Southampton, will be the director of the new centre and told of his excitement over the advances in immunology treatment that were now being taken from the lab to the patient’s bedside and producing “remarkable” results.
He has worked tirelessly looking at cells in the human body called “Killer T” for the past 35 years and now he is seeing the positive results with cancer patients living longer or in some cases even being cancer free having previously been diagnosed as terminally ill and given only months to live.
He said: “This is the first time researchers have felt comfortable talking about a cure. The excitement comes from the fact that there are now trials of Immunotherapy to drugs.”
Prof Elliott described how some patients with advanced of terminal cancers who have taken part in drug trials have been followed over a period of ten years. One fifth of them are now cancer free.
Half of those diagnosed with “difficult to treat” cancers are also showing significant improvement.
He added: “I think we will see vaccines used in Immunotherapy in patients with all types of cancer within 15 years.”
Speaking about the new research hub - £18.5million of the funding required to build it has been found so far - Prof Elliott added: “It’s fantastic and this week we have revealed that it has been recognised by the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership – that is built on the fact it will be very good for Hampshire and the region. It will create new jobs, not only in construction but also highly skilled technical and research positions.”
Jac Samuel, senior Cancer Research UK nurse, heads up the specialist nursing team offering the trials to cancer patients in Southampton.
She described the immunotherapy breakthrough as transforming the lives of those they care for – and she sees the results first hand.
She said: “What we are working on now will be the treatment of the future,” adding that clinical trials were “absolutely vital” in getting the revolutionary research out of the lab and to the patients.
Without volunteers willing to take the chance to try out new drugs and treatments, nothing would ever be achieved.
Currently recruitment is under way for 16 separate cancer treatment trials being offered in Southampton while another 13 are still in the set-up phase. Trials have targeted multiple cancer forms, from lung, to skin, pancreatic to neuroblastoma.
Work has also been undertaken by researchers into mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer commonly found in those who worked in industrial environments, which has claimed countless lives in Hampshire.
Professor Martin Glennie, head of cancer science at the University of Southampton, above, said the results spoke for themselves.
“More than 90 per cent of patients treated with immunotherapy who have survived more than two years remain cancer free.”
Peter Johnson, professor of medical oncology at the University of Southampton, who also leads the city’s Cancer Research UK centre, explained: “Our new treatments in the form of vaccines and antibodies direct special immune cells against cancers. These ‘killer’ cells can control and shrink cancer and give long lasting protection.”
Professor Iain Cameron, dean of medicine, said ultimately the new centre would save more lives and firmly believes that all evidence points to one day being able to make many cancers curable.
YOUR HELP IS NEEDED
THE construction may be about to start, but there’s still help needed in order to fund the creation of Southampton’s Centre for Cancer Immunology - and your help is needed.
The University of Southampton is spearheading the “The cure for cancer? Youreit” campaign as it continues its work into immunology and the revolutionary drugs that could change the life of a cancer sufferer for ever.
Already the fund has received philanthropic gifts and community support as well as grants from leading organisations - but there is still £6.5million outstanding that needs to be raised.
You can show your support for the campaign by visiting southampton.ac.uk/youreit or text YOUREIT to 70660 to donate £3.