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Strengthening the immune system

Recipient: Mr Siong-Seng LiauSiong Liau

Host Institution: MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge

Title: Strengthening the immune system’s ability to fight pancreatic cancer

Type of award: 2019 Research Innovation Fund

Funding: £109,918

The potential of immunotherapy (the Nobel prize winning technique of enhancing the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells) in pancreatic cancer is huge. This therapy has been heralded by the cancer research community as a miracle intervention, with recent studies demonstrating its ability to eradicate leukaemia and breast cancer. However, to date transferring this game-changing intervention into pancreatic cancer has not been successful. There are a number of reasons for this but a crucial barrier is the way pancreatic cancer cells that should be susceptible to immunotherapy, hide themselves from the immune system. Immunotherapy could be a reality for people with pancreatic cancer if we could prevent this immune evasion.

Mr Liau and the team will use specialist laboratory techniques to look at how these cells switch off the expression of certain genes, so called ‘gene silencing’, that allow the cancer to evade the immune system and as such render immunotherapy ineffective. A better understanding of this process will then be used to target the cause of the gene silencing that could potentially remove the barrier to immunotherapy.   

There are outrageously few therapies for pancreatic cancer. Only one drug (PEGPH20) has ever been developed specifically for pancreatic cancer and it is currently at a very early stage of development. Surgery is only available to a select few. This project could potentially open the door to a new world of proven, highly effective treatments.