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Discovering the underlying immunological questions in cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

17 January 2017

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White and Red Blood Cells - image courtesy of the EM Unit


Professor Andrew Mellor, an immunologist working at Newcastle University, is using funding from our Cancer Immunology Project Award to explore the link between dying cells and inflammatory responses that promote cancer development and pain. Here Andrew describes how he’s taking his work in a new direction.

Realising the impact immunology can have on cancer

Immunologist Andrew Mellor has worked alongside paediatric oncologists for many years, giving him a deep understanding of the clinical context for treating cancer. Through this, he realised the value that his expertise could bring to cancer if he focused his own research in this area. Andrew describes why he decided to bring his skills to cancer immunology:

I was interested in the approach being taken by a collaborator of mine, who succeeded in developing a new immunotherapy to treat cancer which is now in clinical trials. As an active collaborator in this project, I gradually realised that we still have little idea how tumours evade the immune system before overt tumours become obvious. These processes take many years and we know that inflammation is a key ingredient that allows tumours to evade the immunity that should destroy them. Understanding what is going on is a fascinating immunological question, which I decided to tackle.

Professor Andrew MellorProfile: Professor Andrew Mellor

In 2015, Andrew took up the role of Professor of Translational Immunolgy at Newcastle University’s Institute of Cellular Medicine, after 20 years at the Medical College of Georgia, USA.

Andrew began his research career with a PhD in Protein Biosynthesis, where his work focused on DNA tumour viruses, This led to working on MHC molecular genetics and in 1998 he was involved in seminal work on the enzyme indoleamine 2,3 dioxygenase (IDO) which established a new way of thinking about in how T cell regulation occurs at sites of inflammation.


The fascinating immunological question

Andrew will be refocusing his expertise to explore how tumours develop, despite the immune system having the innate capacity to destroy them. He will explore how inflammation associated with pre-malignant cells protects them from immune cells.

I hope the understanding gained from this project will inform the design of better therapies that prevent, slow or reverse tumour growth. But I’m also keen to see how this work can help alleviate chronic pain caused by cancer or by some standard cancer treatments.
In the next five years, I see this developing towards more nuanced treatments for cancer patients. But also revealing new perspectives on the underlying causes of chronic diseases that afflict many people, not just cancer patients.

Sharing novel insights between research areas

Cancer immunology is a vibrant area of research that has already led to many new insights into the molecular and cellular pathways that regulate immunity and promote immune tolerance. Andrew believes we haven’t yet realised the full potential of this avenue of research.

Although infectious diseases were the original stimulus to study the immune system, cancer is obviously a very important disease to tackle in the modern world. Studying cancer also provides valuable new insights which are applicable to other chronic inflammatory diseases that affect many people.
For example, chronic infections – where lack of effective immunity to destroy pathogens is the core problem, as in cancer – as well as autoimmune syndromes and transplant survival, where protecting healthy tissue from destruction by the immune system needs to be addressed. Studying cancer could provide real insights because we know tumours appear to hijack mechanisms that suppress tissue destruction.

Finding the right funding for his idea

Andrew’s research environment in the US gave him the experience and insight that helped him develop his ideas and our Immunology Project Award offered him the perfect opportunity to take these forward in a targeted way.

I was steeped in cutting-edge cancer research for many years and I was also a member of a growing cancer centre in the US where I was exposed to seminars and discussions with many prominent oncologists and scientists working in the cancer field – this enabled me to place my immunological questions in a cancer context. The Immunology Project Award is a great opportunity to focus my research and learn something new. I had never formally studied cancer in my own lab and this scheme has enabled me to investigate an interesting immunological question in the cancer field.

Advice for future applicants: highlight the impact you can deliver

Applying for grants can be a time consuming process but Andrew was quick to point out that the process at CRUK was straightforward and he would encourage future applicants to focus their effort on articulating the impact they hope to deliver.

I would encourage prospective applicants to give themselves plenty of time to apply. Ensure your science is innovative and game-changing and make the potential impact you could deliver clear.

The Cancer Immunology Project Award has two deadlines throughout year, the next deadline is 9 May. Look at our website for more information and get in touch with the Research Funding Manager to discuss your idea.