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The mission of the Oxford Cancer Immuno-Oncology Network (OCION) Funding Scheme is to pump-prime innovative Oxford-based immuno-oncology research and build capacity in cancer immunology. We sat down with 2023 awardee, Alistair Easton, to discuss what research the fund will enable him to carry out.

Tell us about your research.

The OCION grant will be used to study a unique population of immune cells, called intra-epithelial lymphocytes.  These cells squeeze between the epithelial cells (which line surfaces all over the body and play essential roles in protection) and are the first immune cells that a bacterium or virus will encounter as it tries to enter the body.  Their job isn’t just to kill pathogens, but also to make sure that the ‘epithelial barrier’, that protects us from the outside world, remains intact or can quickly regenerate if it is damaged.  Underneath these cells, is another physical barrier, called the basement membrane. Our intra-epithelial lymphocytes sit on the outside of this basement membrane, waiting to encounter trouble.

 When cancer develops, it starts outside this basement membrane and isn’t truly dangerous until it breaks through it and properly enters our body, where it can spread. The earlier we can detect and attack cancer, the more vulnerable it is to the immune system. These intra-epithelial lymphocytes must be the first lymphocytes that cancer encounters and therefore, are our first, and best, opportunity to eliminate the cancer before it can acquire new mutations that help it escape the immune system. 


What are the potential implications of this work for patients?  

I’m hoping that we can design vaccines that are optimised to educate these intra-epithelial lymphocytes so that they can kill cancers before they overwhelm the immune system, in the same way conventional vaccines can slow down and stop viruses.  This will be essential for those patients who have a genetic susceptibility to cancer, but also important for those who have an increased risk of developing cancer.


What do you think are the major obstacles for the cancer field to overcome in the next 10 years? 

The cancer field in general needs to better understand the ongoing surge in cancer cases in younger people.  There are several types of cancer that were once almost unheard of in people under 50, that are becoming increasingly common, particularly in wealthy countries.  It is assumed that the causes are largely environmental / lifestyle. 

Unfortunately, so much has altered in the way we live our lives, and so rapidly, compared to previous generations that the task of figuring out what is causing this is very challenging.  In theory, our lives are far less polluted by the big-ticket carcinogens, such as smoke and poor food quality, but we are also exposed to a more diverse cocktail of chemicals, some supposedly medicinal, that our bodies haven’t evolved with.

 There is also going to be a lot of push-back from well-funded lobby groups trying to protect their particular chemicals from stricter controls.  We really have no idea what is causing this. Even young people following supposedly healthy lifestyles e.g. avoiding sedentary lifestyles, avoiding processed foods etc, are still developing these cancers.


What does Oxford Cancer and OCION mean for you and your research?

Oxford Cancer is a fantastic resource that brings together expertise and specialties from across the University and fosters productive collaborations between entirely diverse groups.

Researchers are now attacking cancer from every direction and harnessing cutting-edge technology, across the board.  This includes artificial intelligence, new tissue imaging techniques and novel therapeutics.  All of this converges on the clinic and ultimately the patient, and Oxford Cancer is the nexus that focusses all of these efforts. 

OCION is providing me with the funding necessary to explore my ideas and generate evidence of its importance so that I can take this to the next step and gain full project funding.


Alistair is an academic clinical pathologist working in the Department of Oncology and at the John Radcliffe Infirmary. He specialises in luminal gastrointestinal disease and performs autopsies for the local coroner alongside his research.  Read more about Alistair on his Oncology profile