Groundbreaking work to beat cancer in spotlight

By Stephen Bevan
Published: 15th February 2024

New types of cancer treatment – which use the body’s immune system to fight the disease and are “kinder” to patients than chemotherapy ­– will feature at this year’s Cambridge Festival.

Cambridge researchers will discuss their pioneering work in cancer immunotherapy as part of a package of events focusing on cancer and the University’s work to help end the death and disease it causes.

Klaus Okkenhaug, Professor of Immunology in the Department of Pathology, says immunotherapy is already changing patients’ experience of cancer treatment, and has the potential to transform cancer care and outcomes in the future.

“These are drugs that remove the brakes on the immune system and unleash powerful immune responses, and that’s very effective against cancer,” he said.  “It’s a therapy which is advancing rapidly now, with a large number of immunotherapies approved over recent years. What’s exciting is that many patients have gone into very, very long-term remission, and in fact some of those patients are considered effectively cured. It’s less toxic than chemotherapy, so it’s also kinder on patients.”

Klaus Okkenhaug, Professor of Immunology in the Department of Pathology.

In Cancer immunotherapy: Innovation from laboratory bench to bedside (28 March), Professor Okkenhaug, Dr Pippa Corrie and Professor Rahul Roychoudhuri will explain how the current treatments work – among them cancer-killing viruses, tumour vaccines, and adoptive cell therapy – how they help patients, and how they might be improved.

“Cancer immunotherapy has already achieved a lot,” said Prof Okkenhaug. “We’ve had tremendous success with tumour vaccines, particularly those against Human papillomavirus (HPV) which can cause cervical cancer – and which now we could potentially eradicate. And there is also a lot of excitement about adoptive cell therapy, a personalised treatment where cells taken from a patient’s blood are genetically modified and reintroduced to kill the disease. There have been some remarkable results, particularly in blood cancers.

“There are amazing opportunities, and because of Cambridge’s unique ecosystem, where so many scientists are working together, and working in partnerships with industry, you actually see the time it takes for an idea to be translated into patient trials get smaller.”

Get hands-on with cancer research in Cambridge (16 March), also part of the Festival, is a day of interactive science featuring the groundbreaking programmes and institutes of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre.

Alongside exhibits, experiments, informative demonstrations, and plenty of fun activities, scientists and clinicians will help tell the full story of the cancer research happening across Cambridge.

Neuropathologist Dr Mayen Briggs is part of the team running the Minderoo Precision Brain Tumour Programme, which is working to revolutionise treatment and improve survival rates for brain cancer patients with more targeted and effective care.

Patients with the most aggressive and fatal form of brain tumour, glioblastoma, are being offered a detailed diagnosis and tailored treatment plan, based on genomic sequencing.

Neuropathologist Dr Mayen Briggs.

“The idea is to use more targeted and precision brain chemotherapy by understanding the genetics behind a lot of these tumours,” said Dr Briggs, “and to sequence all of these tumours, understand what is driving them, and to identify instances where other drugs can be used.

“It has a big impact. We’re not just using information on which genes might be mutated, but also how these mutations might be affecting how these genes work. This additional information has the potential to guide treatment. If a patient isn’t responding to a particular therapy, using this information, we can try and work out why.

“It’s information we didn’t have before and it opens up truly personalised treatment options for patients, therapies that wouldn’t normally have been available to them because they’re not part of conventional treatments. It’s an especially significant development for those patients where therapy hasn’t changed a huge amount in terms of what we’re able to offer them.”

So far, the programme – which has enrolled more than 200 patients from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – has identified potential drug targets in more than 90 per cent of patients on the trial, recommended precision therapies for 10 per cent, and informed a change in diagnosis and treatment for three per cent.

Dr Briggs – a member of the Brain Cancer Virtual Institute at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre ­– will join colleagues in ‘Jelly brain surgery and neuropathology’ as part of CRUK’s Festival activities. Festival-goers will get the chance to step into the role of a brain surgeon and operate on special jelly ‘brains’, working with neuropathologists to recognise the patterns and identify the features of normal and abnormal brain tissue.

CRUK’s ‘Jelly brain surgery and neuropathology’ activity

The event – at the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology – will also include an opportunity to find out more about the new Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital, and contribute ideas. Visitors can also get creative with an activity decorating radiotherapy masks.

Other Cambridge Festival events include:

Researching cancer in Cambridge (23 and 24 March), will hear from Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute scientists about the work they are doing as part of their mission for 3 in 4 people to survive cancer by 2034. Interactive stalls will focus on two of the fundamental questions that all cancer researchers must ask: How do we identify cancer in the body? And, how do we get rid of it safely and effectively? There will be an opportunity to look inside the body using light, sound, magnets and more, and the chance to hear an MRI orchestra.  

A talk – Urgent call for cancer awareness in francophone Africa (22 March) – by Cambridge post-doctoral Research Associate Dr Yvonne Joko Walburga will take the audience through the epidemiology of cancer in French-speaking Africa. She will speak about the most common cancers, the risk factors, the prevention measures that are in place, and the challenges of cancer treatment and research on the sub-Saharan African continent, with a focus on French-speaking Africa.

Challenging the mysteries of cancer (16 March), features a range of interactive activities: looking at real cancer cells under the microscope, creating DIY 3D cells, finding the right antibody (key) that fits the right antigen (lock), and origami to make 2D miniature lab coats.

Science spotlight: Step into our science (21 March), is an online event which includes a virtual tour of the Babraham Institute’s Biological Support Unit to see how vital work is carried out at the world-leading biosciences research institute. Much of the Institute’s work underpins biomedical treatments for conditions such as cancer, autoimmune conditions and infectious diseases, to name a few.

The Cambridge Festival, which runs 13-28 March, is one of the largest of its kind in the country, featuring more than 360 mostly free events, and showcases cutting edge research across the University of Cambridge and beyond.

How you can support Cambridge’s cancer research.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.