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Through the Oxford Cancer Immuno-Oncology Network (OCION), we aim to apply Oxford's leading expertise in fundamental immunology to enable more patients, with a wide range of cancer types, to benefit safely from tailored immunotherapy use. We sat down with Professor David Withers, who recently moved to Oxford, to discuss his research.

What is your background?

I am a Group Leader in Experimental Cancer Immunology. I have spent my career investigating precisely how immune responses are regulated, using mouse models to study immune cells in the context of a complex living being. I established my own small research group in 2011 at the University of Birmingham through a Wellcome Career Development Fellowship. In 2024, I moved my research group to the University of Oxford, excited by the excellent research environment and the outstanding mix of clinically-focused researchers alongside leading immunologists.

 

Please tell us in lay terms about your research.

My current research is focused on understanding why natural anti-tumour responses fail and how this can be overcome or circumvented to support the design of better treatments for cancer patients. We have developed novel models and cutting-edge approaches that can track how cells change over time within the tumour. This enables us to precisely determine why different immune cells become dysfunctional within the tumour and how this is brought about. We are particularly focused on bowel cancer, a highly common cancer type where it is clear that in most patients the anti-tumour response is blocked and current treatments are ineffective in the later stages of the disease.

 

 What are the potential implications of this work for patients?

There are now many ways in which the immune response in patients can be manipulated. Knowing which approaches are most appropriate for each individual remains a major barrier to successful long-term treatment. Ultimately, we aim to support the design of new treatment combinations that are tailored to specific cancer patient groups and should ensure significantly better responses. While our research is focused on bowel cancer, the insight garnered will very likely be relevant for multiple cancer types.

 

How important are collaborations for your research? 

Collaborations are absolutely essential in science. For basic immunologists like me, it is essential to work closely with clinical colleagues, such as Prof Simon Leedham, who actually treat bowel cancer patients. This can ensure we are asking the most relevant questions in our models. We also collaborate to utilise technologies with which we are less proficient – a key example here is the immunopeptidomics expertise in Oxford, which can help us unlock how to really assess the composition of complex T cell responses in our models. Immunology research is such a vast field now, full of an array of experimental approaches, which means it's impossible to be an expert in everything. It’s crucial to link with complimentary experimental technologies and synergise with overlapping research areas to keep driving new insight.

 

What do you think should be the priorities for cancer research in the next 10 years?

I think it is essential to investigate how different treatments can be best combined and to consider these in the context of cancer type, stage and site. It is clear that treatments appropriate for cancers in the skin or lungs are not so effective in the gut or liver. To expedite progress here, it is vital that appropriate models exist to help rationalise treatments. Refining pre-clinical models is crucial to ensure that we accurately model human disease and therefore discoveries can be rapidly translated into patient benefit.

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