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Published: 26 March 2024

Dr Audrey Teh from the Institute for Infection and Immunity at St George’s has been awarded a share of the £6.6m funding from The Academy of Medical Sciences through its prestigious Springboard scheme.

In the Academy’s largest funding round to date, Dr Teh was named as one of the 54 ‘exceptional’ biomedical and health researchers to receive the support and has been awarded £125,000, the maximum amount offered to recipients.

The Springboard scheme supports early career scientists to establish their independent research careers over the next two years. In addition to the research funding, it gives them access to the Academy’s mentoring opportunities and career development programmes.

Affordable and accessible cancer drugs

Dr Teh will harness the award to advance her work on developing affordable and accessible cancer drugs for everyone, including people in low- to middle-income countries, using plant molecular farming.

“I am delighted and honoured to accept this Springboard Award. I’m passionate about developing safer and more effective plant-made cancer immunotherapies in a way that ensures countries across the world have broader access to lifesaving treatments. It’s this funding that will truly enable me to carve out my dream research career within the supportive community at St George’s.”

- Dr Audrey Teh, Lecturer in Molecular Immunology at St George’s Institute for Infection and Immunity -

Plant molecular farming is an alternative manufacturing platform for protein-based biologics. Dr Teh added: “It is cheaper, more easily adopted in resource-poor settings, and produces medicines with a more consistent quality and no risk of contamination from human pathogens. It can enable local manufacture of cheap but effective medicines, reducing costs and carbon footprint.”

Dr Teh is working on immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs), which are antibody-based cancer drugs that help a person’s own body fight cancer instead of relying on chemicals or radiation. Their use has increased the survival rate and improved quality of life of cancer patients. However, major challenges such as high costs, limited effectiveness, and potential side-effects persist.”

Antibodies like ICIs are highly diverse, but they share a ‘common constant region’. In this region, the protein and sugar structures are crucial for how effective they work. They influence how ICIs interact with the body to eliminate cancer cells, and how long they stay in the body.

Plant-made ICIs have a different sugar structure compared to mammalian cell-made ICIs. Dr Teh’s project will look to use a combination of plant sugar structures and changes to the protein structures in the common region to maximize the benefits of ICIs, while ensuring patient safety is prioritised and side-effects are minimalised.

Cultivating next generation of biomedical research leaders 

Professor James Naismith FMedSci, Vice-President (Non-Clinical) at the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “Scientists face immense challenges as they begin their careers, and the Academy recognises the hurdles early career researchers must navigate as they establish themselves, which is why initiatives like Springboard are vital. Through this unique programme, we are extremely pleased to support 54 exceptional scientists with our largest-ever round of funding.

"The Academy, together with our partners, is committed to cultivating the next generation of biomedical research leaders and ensuring they have the resources and support necessary to realise their immense potential. By providing substantial financial backing and access to invaluable career development opportunities at this critical stage, we can enable talented researchers to deliver breakthroughs and innovations to improve human health."

The Springboard programme is supported by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), Wellcome, British Heart Foundation and Diabetes UK.

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