Meet our researchers: Richard Baugh, University of Oxford
Targeted immunotherapy of glioblastoma (PhD studentship)
Richard Baugh was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2017 to enable him to pursue research into the brain tumour glioblastoma.
Richard’s interest in cancer research was sparked during a work experience placement when he carried out a number of short projects testing potential cancer drugs.
This experience, combined with the skills he developed during his undergraduate studies in Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, stands him in good stead for his PhD studies and his ambitious research project in this devastating brain tumour.
Glioblastoma (GBM) is a type of tumour that grows and spreads quickly and is hard to treat.
It represents around 15 per cent of all primary brain tumours.
Only 20 per cent of patients survive more than one year from diagnosis, and only three per cent survive more than three years.
GBM tumours are difficult to remove surgically because of they have finger-like tentacles that may wrap around vital brain structures. Following surgery to remove the bulk of the tumour, radiation and chemotherapy are used to slow the growth of remaining tumour.
Read more: Brain tumours
Harnessing the power of the immune system to fight cancer
A crucial feature of our immune system is its ability to differentiate between the body’s own cells and ‘foreign’ cells. This enables the immune system to attack the foreign cells while leaving normal cells alone.
The immune system does not recognise cancerous cells as foreign, meaning that they evade immune surveillance and are able to grow and spread unchallenged by the immune system.
There are a number of different immunotherapy approaches, all based on the premise of flagging the tumour as ‘foreign’ so that an immune response is triggered.
Whilst great progress has been made in the treatment of a number of different cancers using immunotherapy techniques, glioblastoma has historically been considered immunologically ‘cold’, making it unsuitable for immunotherapeutic approaches. A further barrier to the treatment of glioblastoma is the blood-brain barrier. This important structure protects the brain from harmful substances in the blood but also prevents the passage of toxic chemotherapy drugs.
A team in the US has recently shown encouraging success in the treatment of glioblastoma using an immunotherapy approach known as ‘oncolytic virotherapy’. ‘Oncolytic viruses’ are specially engineered viruses that preferentially infect and kill cancer cells. Not only do the viruses cause direct destruction of the tumour cells, but they also stimulate an immune response, so that the body’s natural defences are roused and sweep in to destroy any remaining tumour.
A team in the US have recently taken a form of oncolytic virotherapy to phase 1 (i.e. first in human) clinical trial for glioblastoma. Their approach involves injecting the virus directly into the tumour in order to overcome the blood-brain barrier.
Working under the supervision and guidance of Professor Leonard Seymour, a leader in the field of oncolytic viruses, Richard is working with a form of herpes virus, evaluating its potential to directly kill cancer cells and ‘arming’ it to create a synergistic anticancer immune response.
In this way he will explore and augment immunotherapy for glioblastoma in order to identify armed herpes viruses as candidates for development towards clinical trial.
Given the dismal prognosis for those diagnosed with glioblastoma, and the lack of progress over recent decades, there is a real and pressing need for research into the development of new treatments.
Richard’s research offers hope of an important new tool that could form the basis of new treatments for glioblastoma.
Equally important, through this PhD studentship, we are nurturing the development of a promising young researcher who we hope will go on to develop a long and illustrious career in this under-researched and under-resourced field.
“This is an outstanding application from a young student who has the potential to become a leader in translational research. This is exactly the kind of candidate we need for our fight against cancer,” external reviewer.