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How gene therapy at the Royal Free could be key to treating cancer

PUBLISHED: 15:15 17 February 2017 | UPDATED: 17:28 17 February 2017

Professor Emma Morris in her laboratory at the Royal Free. Photo: Anna Behrmann

Professor Emma Morris in her laboratory at the Royal Free. Photo: Anna Behrmann

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Anna Behrmann speaks to Professor Emma Morris, part of a team of researchers who are genetically modifying patients’ immune cells to find tumours and kill them

The Pears building will host the new and expanded  UCL Institute of Immunity and Transplantation (IIT), currently based in the main Royal Free hospital. Construction is due to start this year.The Pears building will host the new and expanded UCL Institute of Immunity and Transplantation (IIT), currently based in the main Royal Free hospital. Construction is due to start this year.

Cancer patients at the Royal Free and University College London hospitals are among the first in the country to take part in potentially groundbreaking gene therapy clinical trials.

Researchers are taking the patient’s immune cells and genetically engineering them to find cancer cells and kill them - in the same way their immune system would fight an infection.

While chemotherapy and radiotherapy only kill cancer cells while they are in the patient’s body, the genetically engineered immune cells are a “living medicine”.

They could fight the cancer cells for the rest of the patient’s life.

For Professor Emma Morris (pictured), professor of clinical cell and gene therapy at UCL, this is the most groundbreaking form of immunotherapy, which treats cancer by “waking up” the patient’s immune system.

She works for the UCL Institute of Immunity and Transplantation (IIT), currently based in the main Royal Free hospital.

While at the moment the gene therapy is being trialled on patients with blood cancers including acute myeloid leukaemia, chronic myeloid leukaemia and myelodysplasia, Professor Morris believes that it will soon be trialled on a “host of other cancers”.

She estimates that the cancer treatment could become mainstream in the next five years.

Surrounded by photographs of her three children in her office at the Royal Free, she explains that she balances a role as a consultant haematologist with leading a team who are trying out genetically modified immune cells.

As a consultant and a researcher, the 49-year-old is motivated by a desire to tell her patients that there might be hope for them if they meet a certain set of criteria to be eligible for a clinical trial - even if traditional cancer treatments have failed.

“I do two clinics a week and I’ve spent the last 20 years looking after patients,” she said.

“I very frequently have to tell people, we don’t have any other options and sorry, but your cancer’s relapsed and we’ve got no other treatments that we can give you.

“Sitting in clinic with someone who might be your age, younger, older than you, with family, people that you’ve got to know for a long time and telling them…”

Her voice trails off, before she adds: “It’s that real desire and need to have real treatments to offer to people.

“That’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Describing the future of gene therapy, she adds: “I think it will transform how we treat cancer.

“The potential advantage is that if you’re giving immune cells to a patient, and they last in their body for a long time, you don’t have to return for repeated treatments.”

Professor Morris believes that doctors will soon be able to treat chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and even dementia with gene therapy, as well as cancers.

“What I’m excited about is that we will be moving into different disease areas where there have been no real effective treatments for decades,” she said.

The UCL Institute of Immunity and Transplantation (IIT), where scientists are working on various immune-related conditions, including type 1 diabetes, cancer and HIV, will be expanded as a centre of excellence and recruit more scientists and academics in the next few years.

It will be based next to the Royal Free in the planned £42m Pears Building, a joint project between the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, the Royal Free Charity and University College London.

The Pears Building was granted planning permission in February last year, and construction work will begin later this year.


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