As well as conventional medical treatments for cancer – radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy – there’s also a growing branch of biological therapy, known as ‘biotherapeutics’. These are treatments based on biological molecules such as proteins, DNA or vaccines, which target cancer cells more effectively than many conventional drugs.
This week, we announced the opening of our newly rebuilt Biotherapeutics Development Unit (BDU), which will make small amounts of new biological treatments so they can be given to cancer patients on clinical trials across the UK.
BDU to bedside
Located at our Clare Hall Laboratories in leafy Hertfordshire – part of our flagship London Research Institute – the new facility will make an important contribution to beating cancer. Having our own facility to produce these treatments is cost-effective and efficient, allowing us to get new therapies into patient trials as quickly as possible.
Heike Lentfer, Head of the BDU, is clearly excited about the opening of the new unit, and thinks it will provide us with
“…the infrastructure to bolster our drug manufacturing capabilities, enabling our scientists to translate their findings from the laboratory into trials of new treatments in the clinic.
“It’s a real boost being able to make the products that our world-class scientists need for life-saving research into cancer – it is more cost effective and efficient, allowing us to work in a more innovative way to find exciting new treatments to beat cancer.”
Our reporter Anna Lacey went to meet the previous Head of the unit, Gillian Lewis, back when the facility was being built:
First off the blocks
The first treatment to be produced in the new BDU is an antibody called Chi Lob 7/4. First developed by researchers at the University of Southampton, the antibody locks on to a molecule called CD40, found on the surface of cancer cells. The antibody acts as a ‘red flag’ to the immune system, which destroys the tumour cells. As an added bonus, the treatment also acts as a general ‘booster’ for the immune system, helping it to recognise and destroy cancer cells.
Chi Lob 7/4 is currently being tested in a small-scale clinical trial for people with advanced cancer whose tumour cells carry CD40, as well as patients with a certain type of lymphoma. It’s being run by Cancer Research UK’s Chief Clinician, Professor Peter Johnson, at our Southampton Centre.
The trial researchers are currently awaiting new stocks of the antibody. Now the BDU is up and running, they can get on with the study – investigating the best dose of Chi Lob 7/4 to use, and monitoring for any side effects.
Supporting cutting-edge cancer drug development
The BDU is overseen by our Drug Development Office (DDO) – the team responsible for identifying promising potential treatments for cancer and getting them into early-stage clinical trials.
Over recent decades, the DDO has taken more than 100 potential new anti-cancer treatments into trials, and a number of these have made it into widespread clinical use – a ‘hit’ rate that’s comparable to any pharmaceutical company.
While the new BDU will be producing biological treatments, the DDO also runs our Formulation Unit in Strathclyde. This facility produces new chemotherapy drugs for clinical trials, and is a vital cornerstone in our efforts to get the latest cancer drugs to patients as fast as possible.
Cancer Research UK is a charity, not a pharmaceutical company. Our focus is on research, and we simply don’t have the resources to manufacture drugs or biological treatments on a large scale. But by producing high quality products for use in clinical trials, these units are an essential part of our work to beat cancer.