A research team at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester has made a ground-breaking discovery that is expected to have a significant impact on how personalised medicine is used to treat cancer patients in the future.

The research, led by consultant oncologist, Dr Sara Valpione, 38, has discovered that patterns of behaviour in the immune cells (T cells that help the body fight infections and diseases) can not only more accurately determine the patient’s prognosis, but also which immunotherapy drugs are likely to be most effective.

In effect this means that by analysing a patient’s T cells, clinicians can work out the chances of a patient responding to an immunotherapy treatment.

Dr Valpione specialises in studying T cells (immune cells) to better understand how the body’s immune system can fight cancer. But due to the pandemic, Sara no longer had fresh samples to analyse, so she had to stop the research she was doing. This gave her the opportunity to switch the focus of her research to one based on data that had already been collected.

“The pandemic allowed me to divert my attention to something that had been on my mind for a while.” Dr Valpione explains: “If it wasn’t for lockdown I wouldn’t have had the time to do this research. I feel it was destiny. It also saved my sanity as I needed something to focus on. For some time I, along with others in our field of research, had an inkling that finding patterns could help us understand the immune cells. It made sense, but nobody had done it. I surprised myself with how strong the results were. It’s also incredible that we only started in March 2020 and we already have the answers we were looking for.
“What is fantastic is we now can predict who is going to respond to immunotherapy and which treatments will work best on individual patients, avoiding the current situation where people are given toxic drugs which may not have any benefit.”

Dr Valpione treats patients with melanoma, so much of the research used existing data collected from melanoma patients. However, it is believed these finding can be used across many other cancers where patients are treated with immunotherapy. 

The Christie research team also included Professor Paul Lorigan, Dr Avinash Gupta and Luca Campana and the team at the CRUK Manchester Institute.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “These results are really encouraging to see. Immunotherapies are an incredibly important area of research with the potential to make a real difference to patients. While these findings are early research, they add to our growing insight into how to better treat patients with immunotherapies, helping us predict who will respond more to those treatments.” 

Dr Sara Valpione is the first author of an article published in Nature Communications, a well-respected medical journal, about the findings of this research.