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Government funding call brings team science to immunotherapy

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

15 November 2023

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It’s not every day you get called on by government to help shape a major research initiative. But when the call came, our very own Dr David Crosby was ready and willing. Here he tells us about a new consortium for cancer immunotherapy and how you could get involved…  

As a discipline, immuno-oncology has shown incredible promise. There are examples of immunotherapies dramatically improving both survival and quality of life for cancer patients. However, the widespread clinical benefits of this approach have yet to yield all that was hoped for. It’s now evident that – currently at least – they only work on some of the people, some of the time. What’s more, a number of those treated can have adverse reactions to the treatment – and we are unable to predict who they will be.

Why this is the case isn’t fully understood. What is clear however, is the need to accelerate our scientific understanding of immuno-oncology into therapeutic options for the clinic.

This is a huge challenge, not just scientifically or clinically, but also logistically. Deploying developments in this area on a national level, to make a real difference for patients, requires a huge amount of expertise to come together – and that can be a real obstacle. This needs to be team science with a capital ‘T’ if we are to do the difficult work of realising the potential of this approach.

Helping researchers break out of academic silos is hugely important, as is bringing those academics together with industry and health providers

Go team

We have seen first-hand at Cancer Research UK just how powerful it can be when teams from different disciplines come together. Our institutes, our programme grants and, of course, our global team science initiative Cancer Grand Challenges, have enabled multidisciplinary groups to take on some of the most important problems in cancer research.

Helping researchers break out of academic silos is hugely important, as is bringing those academics together with industry and health providers. And I am very glad to see that government has recognised they have a role here for immuno-oncology. In fact, they are doing more than just recognising it, the Office for Life Sciences and Medical Research Council (MRC) are to jointly fund a single award of up to £9m to support a consortium to establish a Cancer Immunotherapy Response Research Platform (CIRRP).

The call will fund a group of multidisciplinary researchers from both academia and industry to generate insights that can be used to identify patients who are most likely to respond to cancer immunotherapies. Crucially, it’ll also aim to learn more about who are at risk of a significant adverse reaction to immunotherapies.

The selected consortium will include a presence in relevant cancer hospitals, existing expertise and equipment, as well as making sure there is collaboration with industry. Those proposing a consortium will be asked to describe how they will build on these foundations to create a platform of people, equipment and expertise which can be used for multiple studies aiming to not only find marker signatures predictive of response to immunotherapies, but also to suggest new immunotherapy targets and combinations.

CIRRP needs YOU!
The Office for Life Sciences and Medical Research Council (MRC) will jointly fund a single 4-year award of up to £9m to support a consortium formed of academic and industry experts to establish a Cancer Immunotherapy Response Research Platform (CIRRP).

Funding will be available to build and enhance the CIRRP platform (adding infrastructure, equipment, technical staff etc.) and also to support an exemplar project or projects aiming to understand response/non-response in a particular patient population and immunotherapy type. In addition to finding predictive marker signatures, the insights coming from CIRRP may also help to suggest new immunotherapy targets and/or combinations.

The call will run through early 2024, with a funding decision by May.

Click here for more information

Why immunotherapy, and why now?

The potential of cajoling the various components of the human immune system to turn against, and ultimately eliminate, cancer is hugely enticing. Understandable then, that it has such a long history. It was back at the end of the 19th century when American bone surgeon William Bradley Coley first attempted to harness the immune system for treating bone cancer. But the reality is, only very recently has cancer immunotherapy begun to give us the clinical benefit so hoped for.

In 2018, over a century since Coley’s first experiments, James Allison and Tasuku Honjo won a Nobel Prize for their work on checkpoint molecules as potential therapeutic targets. We now have checkpoint inhibitors – including pembrolizumab, ipilimumab and atezolizumab – as part of our clinical arsenal which, along with other forms of immunotherapies, really have shifted the needle on progression-free survival and overall survival in some cancer types.

However, the complexity and uncertainty around immunotherapy – including variable and unpredictable response rates and potential side effects – have meant that the clinical application has been hindered. For our part, CRUK are funding some incredibly exciting work in this area and Cancer Research Horizons, the innovation engine of CRUK, has several alliances and projects that involve immuno-therapeutics. But as with most other therapies, getting breakthroughs to patients requires a critical mass of scientific expertise, commercial impetus, and health system delivery knowledge. And it is exactly this which CIRRP aims to coalesce.

It is hoped the funding call will send a strong signal to the Life Sciences industry that the UK is investing in being a world-leading destination for cancer immunotherapy research

Money talks

A key part of this will be bringing industry to the table.

It is hoped the funding call will send a strong signal to the Life Sciences industry that the UK is investing in being a world-leading destination for cancer immunotherapy research. The timing, following hot on the heels of NHS England’s new Cancer Vaccines Launchpad, will certainly help send that signal.

Translation of research to actual therapies is vital if patient benefit is to actually be delivered. That’s why it’s key to CRUK’s strategy. The combining of our translational and commercial activities in Cancer Research Horizons has really allowed us to set our aim firmly at patient benefit. We’ve played an instrumental role in forming over 60 startups and bringing 11 new cancer drugs to market, arising from our research.

Government has invested substantially in life sciences since its Life Sciences Vision solidified its intent to make the UK a life sciences superpower. Now, CIRRP represents a real opportunity to make cancer immunotherapy an important part of this. And it’s an opportunity to be grabbed with both hands – the complexities of immunotherapy must be navigated if we are to realise the long-held potential of bringing the immune system to bear and improve the lives of those with cancer.


Dr David Crosby

David is Head of Prevention and Early Detection Research at Cancer Research UK. He is also on part time secondment to the govt’s Office for Life Sciences (OLS).