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Scientist who lost father to cancer dedicates career to start new cancer cures

A professor who has devoted his career to starting cancer cures after losing his father to pancreatic cancer has spoken of how his dad remains his motivation ahead of Father’s Day.

Fifteen years after losing his dad, Roger, father of two, Professor David Withers, who Worldwide Cancer Research currently funds, has shared his hope that research will help lead to treatment possibilities for all cancers, so no family has to face the struggle he did.

Based at the University of Birmingham, David and his team are trying to find out more about how our immune system and immunotherapies work against cancer. They hope that a better understanding of these processes will help to improve the current immunotherapies, making them useful for more patients.

Scientist who lost father to cancer dedicates career to start new cancer cures
Roger, David and David’s wife in 2006.

The project – one of 16 new projects funded by the charity in 2021 – was awarded £170,685 to track immune cells to improve immunotherapy for patients.

UK charity Worldwide Cancer Research has invested £200m into cancer research projects, delivering breakthroughs that have contributed to improved cancer survival rates, thanks to researchers like David.

The charity is currently funding 74 active research projects, with a total value of £15m, which are focused on 18 different types of cancer.

Scientist who lost father to cancer dedicates career to start new cancer cures
David Withers

Professor David Withers, at the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, University of Birmingham, said:

“My father, Roger, died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. He was 59 when it was discovered. Looking back, I think the worst part was that when the diagnosis was made, there were no treatment options left available to him. He was told there was nothing that could be done, and he died less than five months later.

“This was very early in my research career, so focussing some of my research towards the immune response to cancer became something I really wanted to do. I hope that I can make a difference to other families facing the same situation as mine did when my father was diagnosed. I would like to think that treatment possibilities for all cancers are not too far away as we learn to better manipulate immune responses.

“One in two people will face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, and I think it is in the back of all our minds as we get older. I dream of one day knowing that all cancers have good treatment options, and for me, this is a really worthy goal. It also feels like this should be obtainable given how quickly we are currently learning to exploit the amazing jobs different immune cells do!

“Our project will increase our understanding of how immune cells get to cancers, how they change once there and why. This is fundamental to develop therapies that reinvigorate the immune response – currently, these work amazingly well in a minority of patients, but we need to understand why they don’t work better across the board. Through better understanding these changes, we hope that new ways to boost the response of immunotherapies will be clear and can be rapidly translated into helping patients.

“Being able to do research for a career is a huge privilege and is only possible thanks to the enormous support of charities such as Worldwide Cancer Research that provide so much of the funding involved in science.”

Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive, Worldwide Cancer Research said:

“The past year has shown us the vital role research plays in improving the lives of people across the world, with the global research community coming together to deliver COVID-19 vaccines at a phenomenal pace.

“It has also demonstrated what can be achieved when dedicated and well-funded scientists with the brightest minds come together to solve a problem. For many cancers, like pancreatic cancer, survival rates still need to be improved, which is why continuing to start new cures for cancer is so vital.

“We’d like to say a massive thank you to David for sharing his powerful story ahead of Father’s Day and for his important research into improving immunotherapies. We won’t stop until cancer does.”

An hour of lifesaving cancer research costs £24. To help Worldwide Cancer Research start new cancer cures, please visit: https://www.worldwidecancerresearch.org/support-us/donate/

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