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White blood cells attaching onto a cancer cell

Globally, infection is one of the leading causes of cancer, especially in the developing world where it is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths. Developing novel approaches which enable researchers to pinpoint the mechanisms by which viruses and bacteria are involved in the establishment, growth and spread of cancer is the subject of intense study in Oxford. This research is critical in informing vaccination and public health policy for better understood pathogens (e.g. HPV and cervical cancer). In addition, improving the understanding of interactions between digestive tract commensal bacteria (microbiome) and tumours is likely to have significant implications for how we prevent, detect and treat a range of cancers.

Understanding the molecular mechanisms that sense tissue damage and trigger danger signals, and how tissue inflammation is linked to various pathologies including cancer is the subject of intense study across Oxford. Alterations in tissue and cell metabolism often accompany the development of cancer, and are potential therapeutic targets, as are cancer-specific host and microbiotic metabolites – some of which can be detected by specifically by the immune system. 

By understanding more about the properties of viruses, researchers are moving closer to being able to unlock their potential as therapeutics. Vaccines not only play a role in preventing infection-driven cancers, but can also trigger immune responses that directly target cancer cells, or change the immune environment to one that favours the activation of inhibited effector cells. In addition, oncolytic viruses can destroy cancer cells directly by the lytic stage of their life cycle.

Reprogramming immune cells and molecules to counteract tumours that are able to evade the immune system is an approach that we are only starting to see the full potential of as a therapeutic tool. Successful reprogramming that safely and specifically targets cancer cells requires a detailed understanding of how these molecules and cells operate in the context of the tissue microenvironment in both health and disease. Research seeking to understand this will lead to new approaches and therapeutic combinations required for developing new cancer cures.

To investigate the complexity and dynamic nature of the immune system and its interactions with healthy and diseased or infected tissue, Oxford researchers are forming multidisciplinary groups that integrate multimodal big-data generating technologies, experimental biology and modelling approaches.  and platforms to experiment on and fully comprehend them. We are pioneering new approaches that lead to both better understanding of biological mechanism and to new tool to predict biological behaviour from the nanoscale to populations. 

Understanding the mechanisms by which immune receptors guide T and B-cells to eliminate pathogens is critical to understanding how cancer cells are detected and targeted for destruction, and how autoimmune disease can be propagated and organ transplants rejected. It is crucial for rational design of vaccines and receptor-based immunotherapies including monoclonal antibody and cell therapies and is central to our understanding of whether provoking specific immune responses will be a help or a hinderance in various disease settings.