Natural Killer Cell (NK Cell) destroying a cancer cell


A cross-cutting theme within LCRI, underpinned by significant new investments at the University of Liverpool and collaborator sites, is a focus on research on the interplay between the immune system and cancer cells: immuno-oncology, across different cancer types.

There is a complex relationship between cancer cells and the patient’s immune system, both in the primary site where the cancer originates as well as in distant sites at which cancer causes new deposits (metastases), which account for 90% of cancer deaths. Understanding the interplay between different cells in the tumour tissue () is critical to guide how best to use existing treatments and now to develop new ones.

Cancer cells themselves interact with neighbouring non-cancerous cells and we are trying to understand these interactions. Cells that are present in our normal tissues include fibroblasts - a cell type that produces the material that 'glues' our tissue together. Other cells are a component of the immune system that is used to clear up debris from dead cells: macrophages. These innate immune system cells can protect against cancer and kill cancerr cells. However, both fibroblasts and macrophages can be subverted to protect the cancer cells against the immune system and contribute to an immunosuppressive tumour microenvironment. However, studies led by Liverpool researchers demonstrate that tumour associated macrophages (TAMs) can also protect tumours from cytotoxic agents and support tumour progression.

Hence, researchers are looking at the network of molecules in immuno-oncology – from cytokines and chemokines to growth factors and inhibitory immune checkpoint proteins – to translate new findings into novel treatments for patients as quickly as possible.

It’s a focus much needed in the region. Cancer mortality in Merseyside and Cheshire is 76% higher than the European average, while Public Health England has identified Liverpool as having one of the top three cancer rates in England.

To this end, world-leading experimental cancer researcher Professor Christian Ottensmeier leads a team of interdisciplinary researchers focusing initially on immuno-oncology at the University. His core interest is the understanding and improvement of immune responses in patients, aiming is to develop immunotherapies against solid cancers.

Immunotherapies are an exciting and developing area for research, drawing on including previous immuno-oncology work at Liverpool’s strong research base. A separate study with the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab helped more than 15% of people with advanced non-small cell lung cancer live for at least five years; previously the average five-year survival rate was just 5.5%.

Professor Ottensmeier is able to draw insights from the clinic through his work as Consultant Oncologist at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust. The 2020 opening of the modern and impressive 11-storey centre in Liverpool has brought greater opportunities for practical, patient-driven cooperation with cancer experts from the NHS community and the University in the city’s Knowledge Quarter site.

Long-time collaborator Dr Pandurangan Vijayanand, who is primarily based at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology in California, US, has also joined forces with Professor Ottensmeier’s new Liverpool team, bringing considerable experience, opportunities and fresh perspective.

Cancer treatment is being revolutionised by drugs that modulate the immune system, offering the prospect of improved long-term response patient outcomes for many people who have not responded to conventional treatments. The significant investments at Liverpool can help bring about paradigm shifts in anti-cancer therapy for the benefit of those in the area and across the world.

Back to: Liverpool Cancer Research Institute