Southampton Clinical Trials Unit to run ground-breaking NHS cancer vaccine programme

Ali Richards, who took part in a previous cancer vaccine trial at SCTU
Ali Richards, who took part in a previous cancer vaccine trial at SCTU

The Southampton Clinical Trials Unit, based at the University of Southampton, has been chosen to run a new programme accelerating research into potentially ground-breaking cancer treatments.

The Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad (CVLP) will improve patient access to clinical trials to test new investigational immunotherapies by speeding up the development of personalised cancer vaccines.

It’s hoped thousands of patients at hospitals across England will be recruited to these trials, with University Hospital Southampton one of the first to open to the programme.

Personalised cancer vaccines

Personalised cancer vaccines are a type of immunotherapy, a treatment that boosts the body’s own immune system to help it find and destroy cancer. They are created by analysing a patient’s tumour and using that information to create a vaccine tailored to that patient. They aim to create an immune ’memory’ that can prevent a cancer from returning after surgery or chemotherapy.

Professor Gareth Griffiths , Director of the Cancer Research UK Southampton Clinical Trial Unit (SCTU) at the University of Southampton’s Centre for Cancer Immunology, said: "Cancer vaccines have the potential to improve the way we treat the disease, particularly for those cancers where treatment options are currently limited or very demanding on patients’ bodies. Although there have been some trials of cancer vaccine candidates in the past, there are a new generation of vaccines that that are personalised to individual biological features of a patient’s disease.

"We are delighted to have been chosen to run the national platform which will bring together a number of vaccine trials so that patients can access these trials more easily, improving our research knowledge and hopefully leading to improved treatment outcomes for patients."

Peter Johnson , Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Southampton and NHS National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: "We know that even after a successful operation, cancers can sometimes return because a few cancer cells are left in the body, but using a vaccine to target those remaining cells may be a way to stop this happening. Access to clinical trials could provide another option for patients and their families, and I’m delighted that through our national launch pad we will be widening the opportunities to be part of these trials for many more people."

The NHS Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad

Trials available through the CVLP will each be testing a new investigational cancer vaccine.

Dr Victoria Goss, Head of Early Diagnosis and Translational Research at the SCTU, said: "Patients with early or late-stage cancer who are receiving cancer treatment on the NHS will be able to have tumour samples sent to the laboratories for analysis. If their cancer contains mutations that may be suitable for use in a personalised cancer vaccine, then they may be eligible to enter screening for one of the vaccine trials."

The first trial available through the CVLP is testing a vaccine under development by biotech company BioNTech SE, for a type of colorectal cancer. More vaccines targeting other cancer types will be introduced as the CVLP expands.

The SCTU is a world-leading Cancer Research UK trials unit with expertise in running complex cancer immunotherapy trials and coordinating large-scale platform trials.

SCTU Clinical Director Professor Simon Crabb said: "We have a history of undertaking cancer trials in many types of immunotherapies, including cancer vaccines. The Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad will bring together different academic and industry partners who are developing cancer vaccines and allow patients across England to access trials of treatments that may not have previously been an option for them."

Being part of a cancer vaccine trial

Ali Richards, 63, from Poole in Dorset, took part in a previous cancer vaccine trial at SCTU after her head and neck cancer returned following initial treatment.

She said: "After diagnosis in 2016, I had radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatment. The treatment was really brutal and left me struggling to swallow and needing to be fed through a tube in my stomach. Unfortunately, it was not completely successful and in 2017 I had surgery to remove some lymph nodes in my neck which set my recovery back again."

Ali then took part in a clinical trial of an investigational cancer vaccine.

She explained: "My oncologist’s reason for suggesting the trial was that it could possibly help my immunity going forward and help protect me. For me, I wanted to do it because I thought if it could help other people not to go through what I’d just been through, if there was potentially something that was going to be curative or improve their immunity in some way, then wouldn’t that be brilliant.

"It’s really important that we accelerate progress in cancer vaccine trials. Traditional treatments are not kind by their nature, and anything that can make treatment more simple, more effective, less invasive, has got to be a good thing.

"Cancer is awful, any kind of cancer. Living with the fear that cancer might come back is not nice. If we could free people from that worry and concern, that would be an amazing thing to happen."

Looking to the future

The first trial available through the CVLP is now recruiting patients with colorectal cancer at a number of hospitals across England.

Dr Goss outlined: "Over the coming months, more hospital sites will join the CVLP platform allowing more patients to access investigational cancer vaccines trials."

Professor Griffiths concluded: "Research and clinical trials are essential for improving how we treat cancer and helping to improve outcomes for patients. By bringing together the most innovative immunotherapies and personalised treatment trials through the Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad we hope to facilitate more patient access to these clinical trials and ultimately accelerate the progress in cancer treatments."