Home » Liver » Treating liver cancer by guiding immune cells to the right place

Paid for by University of Birmingham and NIHR Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre

Hepatocellular cancer (HCC), the most common form of primary liver cancer, is a major global challenge. Cases around the world, including in the UK, are set to rise dramatically in the coming years.1

HCC is difficult to diagnose at an early stage because it seldom causes any symptoms and the current screening methods remain ineffective. A recent breakthrough has been the approval of immunotherapy to treat HCC2. Immunotherapy is the ability to harness the patient’s own immune system to prevent the spread of HCC.

Advancements in immunotherapy

In order for immunotherapy to be successful, it is critical that immune cells can get to the right place at the right time. Our research in the Centre for Liver and Gastrointestinal Research (CLGR) at the University of Birmingham is focussed on understanding how HCC tumours can hide from the immune system.

Immune cells travel along our blood vessels and we study cancer blood vessels to find new treatments that will guide immune cells to the optimal location. The CLGR partners with world class scientific research teams and is strongly supported by the Cancer Research UK Birmingham Centre to translate the global impact of our research. Our work is boosted by a £1.4 million grant from Cancer Research UK. This funding builds on the strong partnership between the CLGR and the University Hospitals Birmingham (UHB) NHS trust. 

HCC is difficult to diagnose at an early stage because it seldom causes any symptoms and the current screening methods remain ineffective.

Using donations to advance disease research

UHB has a supraregional centre for liver disease with one of the largest surgical and liver transplant units in the world. It provides a range of expertise and treatment for patients with HCC. The donation of blood and tissue samples that my team receives from our patients is vital in helping understand why HCC develops in the liver and how we can prevent the cancer from growing. We use these samples to develop experimental models which will help us understand how blood vessels could guide tumour-killing immune cells into the microenvironment of HCC. Setting up these models will help us to find new therapies and boost the effectiveness of current treatments.  

The advent of immunotherapy for patients with HCC brings hope. With continuing research in this field, our team aims to greatly improve the outlook in HCC and bring about a cure for more patients in the future.

[1] https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/liver-cancer/incidence#heading-Three
[2] https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ta666

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