Pictured: Lucy alongside The Headmaster, Mr. Montgomery with her certificate and published article

Congratulations to Lucy Addis, current Year 13 pupil who won the Schools Science Writing Competition for the Michaelmas Term 2020.

The Oxford Scientist is a student run science magazine for Oxford University. Lucy’s winning article was themed on ‘An inspirational scientist, alive now, whose work is helping us to advance into the future’. Her focus was on Professor Kevin Harrington’s ‘Immunotherapy Goes Viral’. There were thousands of entrants and the competition was fierce, making this a remarkable achievement.

At the time of entry, Lucy was a Year 12 pupil at The Royal School and she entered the competition by choice. This is a testament to her keen interest in writing and we are very proud to have such a studious pupil as part of our school community.

The adjudication team posted the following remarks on the competition:

“We were blown away by the quality of the articles received. They were incredibly well written and researched, making judging very difficult. We only wish that we had the space to acknowledge more of them. Thank you so much to everyone who entered – we thoroughly enjoyed reading all of your articles and hope that you continue writing about science in the future!”

Judge Profiles

Dr Kerstin Timm is a Career Development Fellow at the Oxford Department of Pharmacology. Her work focuses on early detection and cardioprotection in chemotherapy-induced cardiotoxicity. She is also a Stipendiary Lecturer in Medicine at Somerville College and holds the position of Isobel Laing Career Development Fellow in Medical Sciences at Oriel College. Kerstin is passionate about disseminating research to the wider public and enjoys taking part in outreach events.

Ben Jaderberg is a 3rd year DPhil student in Oxford Physics and is developing quantum algorithms and applications for the first generation of quantum computers. He has industry experience with software and has worked with the quantum computing team at IBM. He enjoys public outreach and has recently developed quantum coding workshops for University and High School students with Oxford Quantum Information Society.

Naomi Mburu is a 3rd year DPhil student in Oxford Engineering science and Rhodes Scholar whose research seeks to explore the use of liquid metal surfaces in nuclear fusion reactors to improve reactor performance. She has served on the executive board for two national organisations aimed to increase participation of people of colour in engineering, teaches a course on nuclear fusion at secondary schools in Oxford, and is currently working on a series of podcasts for the Oxford Scientist.

You can read Lucy’s article below or alternatively, you can view it on the Oxford Science Website using the button at the bottom of this page.

Professor Kevin Harrington’s Immunotherapy Goes Viral

Lucy Addis, Royal School Armagh, Armagh

Professor Kevin Harrington

Revolutionary. It’s a word that’s seldom used to describe cancer treatments, but that’s about to change. Immunotherapy is a “game-changing” new treatment that uses viruses to directly kill cancerous cells and make it much easier for the immune system to spot these, preventing deadly relapses in cancer patients. At its forefront is Professor Kevin Harrington, of The Institute of Cancer Research, London; one of the world’s leading immunotherapy scientists, he studies the use of oncolytic virotherapies, in combination with existing radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments, to selectively target cancer cells.

Imagine you are a white blood cell, floating around your body waiting to pounce on whatever poor viruses have wandered in there. Being a white blood cell, you are excellent at recognising and killing viruses like these, but, unfortunately for your body, not so great at spotting cancer cells, which seem to be playing an endless game of hide and seek. But what if we take one of those viruses and put it inside the cancer cell? Well, then you as a white blood cell can easily sniff out and destroy that tumour. Simultaneously, the viruses inside the cancer cells for once make themselves useful by replicating and bursting the cell from within. So next time that annoying cold sore pops up from nowhere, just remember that the same virus which created it can also be used to target and kill cancer cells. Now you’ll never look at a cold sore in the same way again…

But why should we bother with Harrington’s pioneering immunotherapy when we already have other cancer treatments like chemotherapy? Well, here’s where immunotherapy gets even more T-rrific (excuse the lymphocyte pun). The major drawback with chemotherapy is how it destroys not only cancerous cells, but healthy ones too, leading to serious side effects in cancer patients. Immunotherapy, however, selectively targets the cancer cells, leaving healthy cells untouched, and, crucially for the patient, dramatically reduces side effects.

Harrington first conducted clinical trials of viral immunotherapy in 2016, on patients with advanced head and neck cancers. The immunotherapy drug which he developed for the trail, nivolumab, was the first-ever treatment to extend life expectancy in a phase 3 clinical trial for patients with advanced head and neck cancer after chemotherapy had failed. Even better, 13% of patients receiving nivolumab experienced serious side effects compared to 35% on chemotherapy.

The following year, Harrington co-lead research into using immunotherapy to prevent cancer relapse. With chemotherapy, leftover cancer cells will lie dormant for long periods before a chemical signal, TNF-alpha, promotes aggressive growth of the cancer cells once again. However, in a major breakthrough for immunotherapy, researchers discovered that these resistant cancer cells had high levels of a molecule called PD-1 on their surface that causes T-cells to ignore them. Therefore, by making PD-1 the target for immunotherapy inhibitor drugs, it’s much easier for the body’s immune system to spring back into action and destroy the revengeful cancer cells. The devastating news of being told your cancer has come back could soon be a thing of the past.

Building on the promising nivolumab and PD-1 results, a new immunotherapy drug, pembrolizumab, astonishingly increased life expectancy of advanced head and neck cancer patients by more than 3 years; the side effects were just as astonishingly low: only 17% were reported in immunotherapy patients compared to chemotherapy’s 69%. More recently, Harrington proved that he had found a way to “eradicate tumours” of deadly sarcoma by infecting them with a modified version of the vaccina virus, found in smallpox vaccines. A similar virus, T-VEC is now hoped to be rolled out across the UK in the near future.

It seems extraordinary that in a year when one virus is wreaking havoc across the globe, others are being used by Professor Harrington as a revolutionary new cancer treatment with the potential to dramatically improve both the life expectancies and qualities of cancer patients. As with all new treatments, cost is an initial issue, but Professor Harrington plans to change that with new research and evaluation methods. His lateral thinking and bravery to lead the scientific world into unchartered territory to me is inspirational. In the future, prepare to see immunotherapy go, quite literally, viral.