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We are proud to announce that our Research Fellow, Max Crispin, has been granted a Professorship at the prestigious University of Southampton, a leading centre of cancer research, where he will continue work funded by the charity to develop new treatments against secondary breast cancer.

Professor Crispin, developing new treatments against secondary breast cancer

Professor Max Crispin

Professor Crispin, who will be an Associate Member of the new Centre of Cancer Immunology at the University of Southampton, explains: “The Antibody and Vaccine Group (AVG) in Southampton, along with an extensive network of clinical, commercial and academic partners, has been at the forefront of the antibody field since the 1970’s; providing ideas, reagents and mechanistic understanding for antibody immunotherapy. Moreover, the Cancer Sciences Unit at Southampton, alongside excellent clinical collaborators based at Southampton General Hospital, the CRUK Centre and the Clinical Trials Unit have translated many of these findings into improved treatments for patients. Within the next few months, our team will relocate to the UK’s first dedicated Centre to cancer immunology research. This amazing new Centre and my appointment as Professor will greatly benefit the secondary breast cancer drug development programme that is being funded by Against Breast Cancer.

Professor Crispin and his team of biochemists at the University of Oxford were awarded a 4-year grant in 2015 to design drugs that attach to 2 different molecular structures that should only be found together on cancerous cells and not on healthy cells. This cell-targeting approach labels the cancerous cells as dangerous and allow the bodies’ own immune system to destroy them, which should minimise side effects as healthy cells are ignored. These new drugs, termed ‘bi-specific antibodies’ could improve upon current treatments for secondary breast cancer for which there is currently no cure.

Dr. Nicola Winstone, Research Manager agrees: “We’re delighted that Professor Crispin’s diligence and expertise have been recognised in this way and we are looking forward to seeing the results of the next phase of drug development at Southampton. All being well, by 2019 these experimental drugs could be ready for testing in people who have secondary breast cancer that is resistant to current treatments”.

Current antibody treatments bind a single molecule on cancerous cells, which means they work well in people with cancer cells that have lots of the target molecule present on the cell surface but they are not effective in treating cancers that display lower numbers of the target molecule. Antibody treatments may also stick to healthy cells that display the target molecule, which can result in serious side effects for the patient or require extra monitoring during treatment; in the case of the antibody drug Herceptin that targets HER2 and is used to treat HER2+ breast cancers, people with heart conditions often cannot receive this treatment as heart cells display HER2 on their surface (used to receive growth signals for normal cell growth and repair). By targeting 2 different elements on a cancer cell, scientists hope to circumnavigate these problems and create treatments that can be administered safely to a greater number of patients and be effective against different types of secondary breast cancer, and potentially other cancer types too.

Professor Crispin continues “We’re grateful to our colleagues at The Oxford Glycobiology Institute where this project began, and where we’ve overcome challenges to produce bi-specific antibodies in reproducible and scalable way, which is imperative to the next phase of drug development. We have made different versions of the antibodies that can recognise different pairings on a cancer cell to target them more specifically and ‘talk’ to different components of the immune system to increase their potency as required. Next, we will assess the effectiveness of these formats at Southampton to take the best candidates into human clinical trials”.

The Centre for Cancer Immunology at the University of Southampton is the first of its kind in the UK and is expected to open in the autumn. It will bring world leading cancer scientists under one roof and enable interdisciplinary teams to expand clinical trials and develop lifesaving drugs.

At least 1 in 4 breast cancer cases result in secondary spread, also called metastasis, advanced or stage 4 breast cancer which is diagnosed when breast cancer tumours are found in other parts of the body, commonly the lungs, liver, bones or brain. Current treatments aim to prevent further tumour growth and spread and to manage symptoms.