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A single-storey workshop on a nondescript business park in Oxfordshire is not the sort of place where you would expect scientific revolutions to take place.
For the past 20 years, the former academics who set up Immunocore have worked hard on realising their dream of developing a totally new approach to cancer treatment, and finally it looks as if their endeavours are beginning to pay off. In the past three weeks, the company has signed contracts with two of the biggest players in the pharmaceuticals industry which could lead to hundreds of millions of pounds flowing into the firm's unique research on cancer immunotherapy – using the body's own immune system to fight tumour cells.
It is no understatement to say that cancer immunotherapy, or immuno-oncology as it is technically called, represents a sea change in terms of cancer treatment. Cancer in the past has been largely treated by slicing (surgery), poisoning (chemotherapy) or burning (radiotherapy). All are burdened with the inherent problem of how to spare healthy tissue from irreparable damage while ensuring that every cancer cell is killed, deactivated or removed.
Many organisations have tried to develop anti-cancer treatments based on antibodies, with limited success, Dr Jakobsen said. Part of the problem is that antibodies are not really designed to recognise cells. What Immunocore has done is to build a therapy around the second arm of the immune system, known as cellular immunity, where T-cells seek out and destroy invading pathogens.
"There are a lot of companies working with antibodies but we are virtually the only company in the world that has managed to work with T-cells. It has taken 20 years and from that point we are unique," Dr Jakobsen said.
Immunocore has found a way of designing small protein molecules, which it calls ImmTACs, that effectively act as double-ended glue. At one end they stick to cancer cells, strongly and very specifically, leaving healthy cells untouched. At the other end they stick to T-cells.
The technology is based on the "T-cell receptor", the protein that sticks out of the surface of the T-cell and binds to its enemy target. Immunocore's ImmTACs are effectively independent T-cell receptors that are "bispecific", meaning they bind strongly to cancer cells at one end, and T-cells at the other – so introducing cancer cells to their nemesis.
The key to the success of the technique is being able to distinguish between a cancer cell and a normal, healthy cell. Immunocore's drug does this by recognising small proteins or peptides that stick out from the surface membrane of cancer cells.
The first phase clinical trial of the company's therapy, carried out on a small number of patients in Britain and the United States with advanced melanoma, has shown that people can tolerate the drug reasonably well and preliminary results suggest there are "early signs of anti-tumour activity", the company said.
But Dr Jakobsen said the clinical trial of Immunocore's T-cell drug, as well as future trials, are inherently safe because they are based on incremental rises in dose. All indications suggest it will lead to the expected breakthrough.
He added: "All the pharma companies have come to the realisation that immunotherapy may hold the ultimate key to cancer; it is the missing link in cancer treatment that can give cures."
"They have seen this technology develop. It has come over the mountain top, if you like. With our melanoma trial they have seen it is safe – and it is working."