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Biotherapeutics – a new funding scheme for research

by Alan Worsley | Analysis

21 October 2014

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Illustration of anti-cancer antibodies (blue) and an experimental nanoparticle (brown)

We’ve come a long way from the early days of treating cancer in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, the main options for treatment were relatively unrefined radiotherapy and surgery – a world away from the precision techniques used today. They were the equivalent of using a blunderbuss to hit a target, causing plenty of collateral damage along the way.

But, thanks to the dedication and determination of cancer researchers, we have upgraded our arsenal and the accuracy of our weapons.

Survival has increased from one in four cancer patients surviving at least 10 years in the early 1970s to half of all cancer patients surviving today. And it is our ambition that three in four cancer patients will survive in 20 years time.

To do that, we need even more advanced cancer treatments, while continuing to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of the ones we already have.

And that’s why we’re investing substantially in the emerging field of biotherapeutics – smarter cancer treatments based on cells and biological molecules.

Today, we announced a new funding scheme – our Biotherapeutics Programmes awards – which aims to spark research into these potentially powerful approaches. Successful applicants could receive up to £2.5 million for as much as five years of research into developing new biotherapeutics.

So what are biotherapeutics, and how can they bring us closer to the day when all cancers are cured?


The term ‘biotherapeutics’ refers to any type of treatment that is produced by – or involves – living cells. That is, instead of drugs made from chemicals synthesised in the lab – these are therapies that are based on biological processes in cells, which we can engineer to help fight cancer.

These include:

The key to these treatments is precision. They can either home in on a very specific target in cancer cells or manipulate the immune system into destroying cancer.

For example, antibodies are able to identify incredibly specific differences between healthy cells and cancer cells. This ability, combined with the fact that these treatments can be ‘trained’ to hit targets of our choosing, is what gives biotherapeutics the potential to be the ‘smart missiles’ of cancer treatments.

The more we learn about which components of cancer cells make the best targets for treatment, the more refined we can be in making selective biological therapies.

For example, you may have already heard about the new antibody treatment pembrolizumab (Keytruda) which was recently given approval by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for treating melanoma.

As we’ve written about before, pembrolizumab is just the first in a range of antibody treatments that target specific molecules known as PD-1 and PDL-1, helping the patient’s own immune system to eradicate cancer cells. So far, the results from clinical trials are looking good, and these treatments hold real promise for cancer patients.

Antibodies can also be deployed in other ways. For example, once an antibody has been created, it can be used to ‘paint a target’ on cancer cells, highlighting it to the immune system to clean up. Alternatively it can be directly attached to another form of treatment, such as radiotherapy or a toxic chemical, acting as a delivery system for a deadly payload.

There are also promising approaches being made with vaccines. Rather than preventing the development of the disease, these treatments educate the immune system to recognise cancer cells as a threat and destroy them.

It is exactly these types of new approaches to treatment that we hope to foster through our new Biotherapeutics funding scheme.

Not home alone

Because biotherapeutic treatments come from biological sources, they are different from the man-made chemicals that are combined to make drugs. This means that developing these new treatments will raise a raft of new challenges as well as great promise.

In order to help overcome these obstacles and unlock the exciting potential of these new treatments, researchers who are awarded our Biotherapeutics Programme grants will also have the opportunity to work at the new joint Cancer Research UK-Medimmune biologics research laboratory in Cambridge.

As part of this combined effort, scientists from both organisations will be able to work side by side on different projects targeting cancer. While Medimmune will provide access to its human antibody catalogue, the joint team will share the knowledge and expertise to discover and develop new antibodies to treat cancer.

The time is ripe to harness our shared knowledge of this emerging technology and unleash the power of these new biotherapeutic treatments on cancer research.

By funding the cutting edge-research into new biological cancer treatments now, we can ensure that more patients get these new treatments sooner.


More info

For researchers interested in our new awards and for more information on how to make an application visit these pages on our website:


Antibody illustration courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 license via Flickr