Driving innovation in cancer therapy

Our research into personalised forms of immunotherapy has undergone rapid commercialisation to deliver life-saving results for patients worldwide.

Impact highlights

  • We developed adoptive cell therapy (ACT) which uses a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer.
  • 200 patients per year are now treated with ACT on the NHS in the UK.
  • The new consortium iMATCH improves the access, efficiency and safe delivery of ACT to patients.
Professor Fiona Thistlethwaite

Professor Fiona Thistlethwaite

Fiona Thistlethwaite is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at The University of Manchester.

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Limited treatment options for patients with advanced cancer

Despite improvements in the treatment of many early-stage cancers, there remains a pressing need for effective treatments for patients with advanced cancer that has returned after initial treatment.

While the concept of using a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer was theoretically possible, the technologies required had not been established prior to 2000.

Our research revealed how to manipulate the immune system in order to achieve the best anti-cancer response – known as adoptive cell therapy (ACT) – and the team set up the infrastructure to deliver this as a therapy to patients.

From innovation to commercialisation and patient benefit

“One of the first UK clinical trials of adoptive cell therapy for lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) took place in Manchester.”

The first step to commercialisation involved running clinical trials, but there was a shortage of UK manufacturing capabilities for the ACT products needed. As a result, the team, led by Professor Robert Hawkins, set up their own spin-out company, Cellular Therapeutics Ltd, in 2008.

One of the first UK clinical trials of ACT for lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) took place in Manchester, with follow-on trials in the US. Their success led to the rapid commercialisation of ACT products.

Since 2019, two approved therapies (Yescarta and Kymriah) have been available on the NHS. Approximately 200 UK cancer patients receive ACT each year, with around 50 of these treated in Manchester. Many more patients have benefitted from treatment in clinical trials; some who had run out of treatment options have since been cured.

Cell and gene therapies, including advanced cell therapy, are among the most rapidly expanding fields in medicine, with a global market predicted to reach over $15 billion by 2025. The University’s spin-out company, Immetacyte (formerly Cellular Therapeutics Ltd), merged with Instil Bio in 2020. Since then, the company has successfully raised several hundred million pounds' worth of private and public funding to commercialise a form of ACT – tumour-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy – and develop next-generation TIL products.

Working together to treat more patients more quickly

Safely delivering ACT to patients requires a high level of coordination across many different teams. In 2018, the University worked with colleagues at The Christie Hospital, Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust and nine commercial partners to form a new consortium, iMATCH (Innovate Manchester Advanced Therapy Centre Hub). Funded by a £7 million grant from Innovate UK, the Hub became one of three National Advanced Therapy Treatment Centres that work together in a bid to secure the UK as a global hub for cell therapies.

Giving hope to more cancer patients

iMATCH continues to improve access to ACT for patients while ensuring its efficient and safe delivery. However, while ACT has successfully treated certain blood cancers, it has proved much harder to develop for solid tumours in organs. Through iMATCH, the team is running trials for TIL therapy to treat patients with melanoma (skin cancer).

In 2022, Instil Bio UK will begin a clinical trial in Manchester using TIL to treat these patients and look to gain regulatory approval for use as standard care. Research is now focused on exploring the cells and structures in and around a tumour to make TIL therapy safer and more effective for use in other cancers.

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Research detail

Supporting researcher

Professor Robert Hawkins
Cancer Research UK Honorary Professor

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