Dr Hugo De La Peña, from the University of Birmingham has been named ‘Young Researcher of the Year’ by the European Association of Cancer Research (EACR). The prestigious ‘EACR-PIVAC Researcher Award 2010’, which was presented at a ceremony in Cambridge on 29 September, places Dr De La Peña as one of the top junior scientists in the field of blood cancer research.
Applicants from across Europe and USA competed for the award, which this year was titled ‘Progress In Vaccination Against Cancer (PIVAC).’
“Being named ‘Young Researcher of the Year’ is a great honour and will be really important for my future career in blood cancer research. The award is also a really big deal for the whole team working on this amazing Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research project,” says Dr De La Peña.
Dr De La Peña is part of a team led by Dr Mark Cobbold at the University of Birmingham, which is researching immunotherapy, a relatively new form of treatment now being developed for patients with blood cancers. Immunotherapy treatments aim to harness the immune system to fight cancer. Vaccination against cancer for the general population is another major goal being pursued by Dr Cobbold’s group.
The team are looking at how the immune system responds to cancer cells in patients with acute myeloid leukaemia and myelodysplastic syndromes, to identify new targets. More specifically they are looking at molecules called ‘phosphorylated cancer antigens’ that are found on the surface of leukaemia cells and have been shown to provoke an immune response.
Many immunotherapy treatments against cancer have not been as successful as was first hoped. This is likely to be because they are not reaching the right targets present on the cancer cells.
Immunotherapy treatments usually work by generating T cells, which are an important part of the immune system, to strengthen their attack on the leukaemia cells.
“Our research is at a really exciting stage because we have identified ways of targeting these important cancer antigens on the surface of leukaemia cells. We are now working on generating T cells, which will be retrieved from healthy donors, modified and given to patients. Vaccination with these phosphorylated cancer antigens is another exciting strategy being developed at the same time by our team,” says Dr De La Peña.
The team plan to start testing this immunotherapy treatment in laboratory models. It is hoped that the research can be developed into a new therapy, and tested in patients with leukaemia as part of a clinical trial, within the next 10 years.
Dr De La Peña adds, “By winning ‘Young Researcher of the Year’, our research has gained new international status which will really help us to drive our work forward into new treatments for patients with leukaemia. It’s also really important to me as it shows our supporters how committed we are to finding a cure for leukaemia.”