Cancer is my game,” says Prof Lindy Durrant, an immunologist, founder and chief executive of Scancell, which is developing vaccines that could offer a needle-free protection against Covid as well as novel treatments against cancer. Founded in 1997 on the back of her Nottingham University research, the Oxford-based company’s work on treatments that stimulate the body’s immune system to fight cancer and infectious disease has put it in a cluster of promising British biotechnology firms.
While most vaccines are taken preventively, there is no jab to avoid cancer (apart from the HPV one for the virus that triggers most cervical cancer). “Probably 50% to 60% of people will get cancer and die of it,” says Durrant. “There are probably 200 different types of cancer. Each of them has a very different signature. So to design a vaccine that covers them all is really hard.”
Instead Scancell developed therapeutic jabs that aim to halt or reverse its spread, earning Durrant the Waldenström award from the Swedish Society of Oncology in 2019.
After Covid-19 was declared a pandemic three years ago, she and her team “felt we should do something”. One of their experimental cancer vaccines looked promising. “We thought, right, we can adapt this quite nicely to Covid. With the advantage that the vaccine was very much towards stimulating good T-cell responses.”
T-cells are white blood cells that form a vital part of the immune system. While the current Covid vaccines mainly generate antibodies that stick to the virus and stop it infecting the body, the new vaccines being developed by Scancell and others prime T-cells to find and kill infected or tumour cells.
Scancell began testing its vaccine against Covid variants in October 2021. By that time, the UK had the AstraZeneca/Oxford University jab and because they, and Pfizer and BioNTech, “moved at lightning speed, the decision was made, we can’t compete with big pharma