Merseyside mum amongst first in the world to receive pioneering cancer therapy

A mum has become one of the first patients in the world to be given a pioneering form of cancer therapy designed to help her own immune system fight the disease.

Beverley Joyce, who has throat and mouth cancer, is just one of only five people in the world to trial the treatment, which is hoped combined with surgery and radiotherapy, will kill her tumours.

She was given the ground-breaking treatment, known as MOAT, at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, in Liverpool.

"When I was told about the trial, I thought it was amazing," Beverley, from St Helens, said. "They explained it all so simply. Why would you say no?

"I know it is a new treatment but is only helping my own immune system to have a better chance at fighting the cancer. It seemed very natural to me. I just had to go for it."

Beverely received her diagnosis as she was preparing to celebrate her 60th birthday. Credit: Kimberley Joyce

Beverley was making preparations for her 60th birthday party in May 2022 when she noticed ulcers in her mouth were not healing, and her daughter, Kim mentioned she was not speaking normally.

She contacted her GP and, after a series of tests, was given the cancer diagnosis.

"I was floored when I was told it was cancer," said Beverley.

"I have been healthy all my life and I've never smoked, so when they said it was head and neck cancer I was really shocked. It was awful - a very scary time."

Beverley's cancer had spread to her throat and lymph nodes so the medical team immediately discussed treatment options, including the opportunity to join a clinical research trial.

She was offered a new treatment as part of the Mode Of Action Transgene (MOAT) study, which would involve gene therapy to help her own immune system fight the cancer. 

What is MOAT?

MOAT involves giving the patient a modified virus with four additional genes, designed to multiply only in the cancer and activate a type of white blood cell, called T-cells.

These help the immune system to destroy the cancer cells and kill other cells, called fibroblasts, that are thought to help cancers grow. Normal cells are not affected.

Beverley was treated at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Liverpool. Credit: Clatterbridge Cancer Centre

After three rounds of the therapy, injected through a vein, Beverley had to wait a couple of weeks before undergoing surgery to remove the tumours and affected lymph nodes.

She also had to have part of her tongue removed - before it was reconstructed using tissue from her leg.

Her daughter Kim has been with her every step of the way.

She said: "My mum has been through so much - major, life changing surgery and 30 rounds of radiotherapy but she looks amazing."

She continued: "Her prognosis wasn't great at first so I really wanted her to have anything that was going to make her better and to save her. When the trial was offered, we didn't hesitate.

"Both her speech and her ability to swallow have been affected but they are things that can be worked on and helped by speech therapy. But she is alive and well and doing really well."

Beverley was one of the first five patients in the world to be given the therapy in the MOAT study, with four of those patients now receiving treatment at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre under the care of the study's Principal Investigator, Professor Christian Ottensmeier.

Prof Ottensmeier, Director of Clinical Research at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust and Professor of Immuno-Oncology at the University of Liverpool, said: "Beverley has responded tremendously well to the MOAT therapy and her other treatments.

"We are all hoping that this experimental immunotherapy will have boosted Beverley's immune system to such an extent that it will kill all the cancer cells, but we will only know this over time.

"We have seen in other MOAT patients of ours that the therapy has been found in the cancer tissue which has been removed by surgery, so this gives us hope that the treatment does what it is supposed to do and is making a real difference to these patients.

Professor Christian Ottensmeier, Consultant Oncologist at The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre Credit: Clatterbridge Cancer Centre.

"This is cutting edge research but here at Clatterbridge we are highly skilled in the delivery of these novel therapies.

"This study is a clinical research trial and we will need many more patients receiving the treatment before any conclusions can be made about its effectiveness - but we are very excited by MOAT."

"If this can find the cancer cells as our early data suggests, then there is no reason why it couldn't find those cancer cells that we can't see on scans which is of course the problem for cancer treatments: it's not the bits we can remove, it's the bits that we don't know where they are that eventually grow and make the patient ill and eventually die that are the problem in most cases.

"I have been in Oncology for a long time and seen many things come and go - so to see this develop in the way it is currently doing is very exciting."

Credit: Kimberley Joyce

Beverley will continue to be monitored by the research teams for many months.

She said: "We don't know how things will turn out with it yet, but whatever happens the research will help someone else in the future.

"I feel very special and very proud to be part of that."

She is now hoping to return to work.

Kim added: "It was such a shock when mum had the diagnosis. I'd never known her to be unwell as she had been healthy all her life.

"But everyone moved so quickly to treat her when she was told it was cancer, and she has had very few side-affects.

"Some people find radiotherapy very difficult, but mum has smashed it.

"She has been treated like a VIP at Clatterbridge - the care has been wonderful. During the whole process mum has been very comfortable and has felt very safe in their hands."

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