Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society

Harnessing the little white cells

Tracing practices of immunity in cancer

image of white blood cells

Over the last five years, immunotherapy treatments have emerged in clinical practice and are also currently being tested as part of experimental clinical trials to treat patients with some forms of cancer. These treatments utilise the patient's own body to treat cancer, and the scientific and clinical hope attached to these novel therapies is that they have the potential to extend survival time for patients. There are however, clinical concerns regarding long-term treatment side-effects and toxicities, predicting response and prognosis, and management of patients’ hopes and expectations.

This project involves fieldwork across two sites where treatments are implemented in order to understand how immunotherapy is shifting how cancer is approached, managed and experienced. It considers the way in which immunotherapy treatments impact how cancer is managed in clinical practice as part of patient care as well as exploring what these developments mean for patients who are living with cancer.


The project will ask the following research questions:


  1. How are developments in immunology shifting conceptualisations of what cancer is and how it is treated?


  1. How are patients’ experiences and subjectivities configured by immunological developments in cancer treatment?


  1. How is immunity in cancer constituted through the material practices of scientists, clinicians and patients within the context of personalised cancer medicine?


At the intersections of medical sociology and science and technology studies, the project will consider immunotherapy as an emerging technology for treating cancer and explore the implications of this approach for shaping how cancer is understood, practised and experienced. Findings from the three-year project will contribute to a more detailed understanding of how the immune system for treating cancer is practised in everyday laboratory and clinical settings.

The team

Research is being led by Julia Swallow. The project will be mentored by Martyn Pickersgill. It is funded by a Wellcome Research Fellowship in Humanities and Social Science.