A new drug to treat one of the world’s deadliest cancers is to be given to more than 300 British patients.
It is hoped the treatment, already used for other tumours, will harness the body’s own immune system to beat lethal mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos.
Rates of the disease have soared almost six-fold since the 1970s. There were around 2,700 new cases of mesothelioma in the UK in 2013 - more than seven cases diagnosed every day.
The groundbreaking will test whether nivolumab, a drug which has been successful in treating advanced melanoma and kidney cancer, is effective for mesothelioma.
It works by finding and blocking a protein called PD-1 on the surface of T-cells. This activates the immune cells to hunt down and kill cancer cells.
Professor Gareth Griffiths, of the University of Southampton, said: “The UK has one of the world’s highest incidences of mesothelioma and currently there aren’t many ways to treat it.
“Boosting the immune system by releasing killer T-cells that have previously been blocked could offer us a new way to treat more patients with this devastating disease.”
The trial, run in collaboration with Professor Dean Fennell at the University of Leicester, plans to recruit 304 patients, who have relapsed mesothelioma, across Britain, including Southampton and Leicester.
Prof Fennell said: “Preliminary studies targeting PD-1 in mesothelioma have shown promising activity.
“Critically, we aim to understand why patients respond, or not, to this drug, and identify biomarkers to ensure we can personalise therapy to maximise the benefit for patients.”
One person who has already benefited from using the immune system to fight mesothelioma is Mavis Nye, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2009.
After various courses of treatments which failed, she joined a preliminary immunotherapy trial to test the drug Keytruda on how well it blocked the PD-1 protein and enabled the body to fight off a number of cancers, including mesothelioma.
After the first two years, scans revealed the tumours had decreased by 81 per cent, with three disappearing completely. Mavis is now cancer-free and spends her time raising awareness about the importance of clinical trials.
She said: “I was just an ordinary woman whose husband worked at the dockyards in Chatham.
“We didn’t know what the effects of the asbestos on his clothes might be. Cancer is a terrible and devastating disease that turns everything on its head. I am so thankful that the trial I took part in worked.
“But it didn’t work for every participant. We need more trials to help improve treatments and survival rates for cancer, and this new trial is a big step in the right direction.”
Dr Catherine Pickworth, Cancer Research UK’s science information officer, said: “Immunotherapy treatments work by turning the power of our immune system against cancer.
“They are already being used routinely to treat advanced skin and kidney cancers, and are showing promise for other types of cancer too.
“This clinical trial will find out whether an immunotherapy drug could benefit people with mesothelioma, which is hard for doctors to treat successfully.
“We urgently need trials like this to help improve survival for patients with this aggressive type of cancer.”
The construction of the Centre for Cancer Immunology is expected to be completed by September and aims to be in full operation in summer 2018.
It will bring world-leading cancer scientists together under one roof and enable interdisciplinary teams to expand clinical trials and develop lifesaving drugs.
The Centre, which is based at Southampton General Hospital site, is being funded by a £25 million fundraising campaign by the University of Southampton.
Professor Tim Elliott, Director of the Centre for Cancer Immunology, said: “The University has made major advances in tumour immunology and immunotherapy over the past 40 years and we enjoy a strong reputation for our ‘bench to bedside’ approach.
“The new Centre will go a long way in helping many more people with cancer become free of the disease, and we hope this new trial to fight a particularly sinister type of cancer will be the first of many successful trials.”