Meet the Researcher: Charleen Chan

Charleen Chan smiling into camera with lab coat on

In 2023 Oracle Cancer Trust awarded Charleen Chan, Institute of Cancer Research, funding for her research project “Dynamics of T-cell-driven immune responses to radiotherapy and immunotherapy in a HPV16- positive model of Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma". This research investigates the underwhelming results of combining radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy in clinical trials for Head and Neck cancer. Examining T-cell responses in mouse models, the study seeks to understand and improve treatment efficacy, offering insights into optimal combinations and potentially reducing chemotherapy and radiotherapy doses to mitigate side effects in patients. 

When did you first know that you wanted a career in research?  

Through my training in clinical oncology I have seen first-hand how rapidly the field of treatment options for our patients can change based on new research findings and discoveries. This has made me want to be involved in research that can impact on clinical treatment.  

How did you come to specialise in Head and Neck cancer?  

I worked with Head and Neck cancer patients during my clinical oncology training at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust and The Royal Marsden NHS Trust. Head and Neck cancer affects such a wide range of demographics and both diagnoses and treatment can have such a profound impact on patients’ self-image and quality of life. I applied for a PhD investigating radiotherapy and immunotherapy combinations in Head and Neck cancer as this is an exciting area of research we hope will result in positive outcomes for patients.  

What is the take home message of your research?  

My research aims to investigate the dynamics of T-cell driven immune responses in locally-advanced Head and Neck Cancer. Understanding how T-cells change in activity and function over time when treatments are given can help guide us as to the best method of delivering these treatments and combining them with other agents such as immunotherapy. 

Why did this research need to be done?  

There has been increasing interest in treatments that boost the body’s immune response against cancer (immunotherapy) to lead to long-lasting tumour control. Combining both radiotherapy and immunotherapy treatments in Head and Neck cancer has shown to be promising in the laboratory setting. Unfortunately, clinical trials testing these combinations in humans have thus far been disappointing. The reason behind why these clinical trials have failed is unknown and there is clearly a gap in translating laboratory findings to clinical trials. My project hopes to investigate the reasons for this by tracking T-cells which are important in kick-starting and sustaining our anti-cancer immune response. We hope that understanding this can help guide us as to the best method of delivering current and new treatments.  

What have you learnt along the way?  

I have learnt that research plans evolve and change depending on new results. It is important to keep an open mind and always ask the ‘why’.  

What difference will this make to patients?  

I hope that my research into standard-of-care treatments in Head and Neck cancer will be able to better guide combinations of radiation with novel agents such as immunotherapeutics. Particularly in light of recently failed clinical trials, the aim is to provide improve outcomes as well as provide better quality of life for patients.