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Harnessing the immune system to treat bowel cancer 

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that uses our own immune system to fight cancer. It works by helping the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy is a powerful treatment for some types of cancer, but it’s not yet effective for most people with bowel cancer. This means that many people with the disease must rely on older, less targeted treatments like chemotherapy.

Professor Marco Gerlinger, based at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, wants to change this. He’s leading a project that aims to help develop new immunotherapies to improve survival for people with bowel cancer.

In the early stages of cancer, our immune system does a good job of killing individual cancer cells as they appear. However, as tumours grow, the cancer cells evolve and find ways to hide from our immune cells and escape detection. It’s like the cancer cells are putting the brakes on our immune system.

By using the latest, cutting-edge technologies to study blood and tumour samples from people who were treated in clinical trials, Professor Gerlinger aims to understand two things. How we can make our immune cells recognise bowel cancer cells better, and how can we release the brakes that the cancer cells put on our immune cells. He hopes this will help the development of new therapies which are more effective and allow people with bowel cancer to avoid chemotherapy.  

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