“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,” Durrant says.
However, early clinical results were positive and Scancell is looking for a partner to take its vaccine forward as a booster, as the virus continues to mutate. An estimated 10% of people will experience symptoms of long Covid, with at least 65 million people worldwide estimated to have it.
Unlike most other jabs, the Scancell vaccine is delivered via needle-free, spring-powered injectors that use a narrow stream of fluid to penetrate the skin. “People loved it. I can’t believe how many people are needle phobic even post-pandemic,” says Durrant.
She recalls how she always wanted to be a scientist, and loved experiments. Slightly dyslexic, she was “never particularly good in junior school,” but was soon top of the class at a grammar school in Stockton-on-Tees. “Nobody cared how I wrote any more,” she says. Instead they wanted to know: “Did I understand the concepts?”
After completing a BA in biochemistry and her PhD in cancer chemotherapy at the University of Manchester, Durrant moved to Nottingham in the early 1980s, the centre of cancer immunotherapy in the UK. There she “fell in love with immunology” and the potential to harness the body’s immune system to fight disease.
Scancell’s main focus remains cancer treatments. It is currently testing two therapies on patients, one in skin cancer, again given via a needle-free injector, and another, named Modi-1, for solid tumours in head and neck, breast, renal and ovarian cancers.
Durrant learned from rheumatoid arthritis how “stressed” cells alert the immune system that they need to be killed. “I thought, well, autoimmune disease is sort of what we’re trying to do against cancer. We’re trying to get you to recognise your own cancer and kill it … I was like, I wonder, if T-cells will attack cancer? Yes, that was the novelty basically.”
In 2011, when the firm started testing its vaccines in mice, “the tumours disappeared completely,” she recalls. Initially she was so surprised, she assumed it was a mistake and asked the post-doctoral researcher to re-run the experiment: “And she did it again, and there were no tumours. I was like, wow!”
The cancer vaccines are being trialled on their own, and in combination with other drugs known as immune checkpoint inhibitors, which help alert T-cells to kill tumours. In melanoma, checkpoint inhibitor drugs help cure about 55% of patients, but only 20% of people with head and neck cancer. In a presentation to a major cancer conference in Chicago in early June, Scancell said the Modi-1 vaccine was well tolerated by patients and the early data on its effectiveness when given alone was encouraging.
It looks most promising as a treatment for head and neck cancer, where “surgery is quite debilitating and … it’s very disfiguring,” though Durrant cautions: “I don’t think it will be for every patient.”
Immuno-oncology is a rapidly growing market, estimated to exceed $300bn by 2030, according to Allied Market Research. Boston-based Moderna, whose Covid jab has been a huge commercial success, is also working on a melanoma vaccine and hopes to start late-stage trials before the end of 2023. Durrant says her rival’s vaccine is personalised, targeting the patient’s specific mutations, whereas Scancell’s one “is for everyone”. Germany’s BioNTech is also developing a melanoma vaccine, based on mRNA like its Covid jab.
Scancell, backed by US specialist healthcare investor Redmile which has injected £40m, floated on London’s junior AIM market in 2010 and has a market value of around £120m. If the trials work well, a Nasdaq listing in New York would be “a realistic opportunity” to raise more money, Durrant says. “The Americans are much more into high-risk, high-reward investments. The UK is much more conservative.”
She owns 0.2% of Scancell – management in total holds 1.8% – and also has share options worth almost £1m.
And what of the government’s ambition to turn the UK into a life sciences superpower? “The problem they have to a large extent is you need to specialise in a particular area and you need to put quite a bit of money behind it. [Ministers] could never make that decision.”
The Covid pandemic has brought public attention to novel medicines. “There has been a bit of a positive trend into cancer as well. We struggled a bit with cancer vaccines because there’s not an approved cancer vaccine to date [apart from HPV]. So people are very sceptical about whether you can make it work,” Durrant says.
In the past, she found when she talked about her job “everybody is going, ugh. At a dinner party, the immunologist, boring scientist – don’t sit next to her.” Now she finds people ask her: “What’s an antibody? What’s a T-cell? Is this vaccine working? Which vaccine would you have, Lindy? People understand a bit more.”