March 11, 2021

Innovating for the future – Martyn Hiscox

Martyn Hiscox

I joined Adaptimmune as a scientist in 2013- six weeks after finishing up my Ph.D. Lab work. After seven years at the University of Southampton studying for my MChem and Ph.D. in chemistry, I was ready to leave academia and head into the world of industry. I was attracted to Adaptimmune because of the potential our work has to improve the lives of people living with cancer. More personally, whilst studying for my Ph.D., my mother’s sister sadly passed away from leukaemia and this motivated me to work in oncology.

I started as a scientist and am now a principal scientist in the phage display group. Our team is responsible for discovering new T-cell receptors (TCRs), which is one of the earliest stages in the development of our products. In particular, I look after the scientific leadership and management of our pipeline activities.


The pandemic has brought the important role British science plays to the forefront with the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Innovating for the future, one of the themes of this year’s British Science Week, is key to what we do as scientists, as we try to improve the lives of people all over the world. At Adaptimmune, we aim to innovate for a future without cancer, where effective treatments can either cure cancers or at least provide more time for people with their loved ones.

Innovation isn’t without risk. Some ideas don’t work, this is what frontier science is all about. We have to test a lot of different ideas and theories to figure out what works and what does not. This ambiguity can be uncomfortable, but it is one of the things I love about science. There are always variables to tweak, hypotheses to test, and new technologies to progress.

HLA-independent TCRs

Recently, we decided to see if our TCRs could act on targets that are not tied to the normal antigen presentation machinery known as the human leucocyte antigen or HLA. TCRs typically only target parts of proteins, broken down from larger proteins inside the cell, presented in the HLA on the cell surface. HLAs vary greatly between people and having TCRs that are dependent on certain HLAs limits the use of our therapies.

We wanted to find TCRs that could react to something other than HLA, or so-called HLA-independent TCRs or HiTs. If we could do this - we could treat a greater number of people with cancer and transform even more lives.

Three of my fellow colleagues and I set out to try to find HiTs, and we had just over a year to deliver proof-of-concept data. Although it can be tempting to test idea after idea, there is an urgency to our research because we aim to make products for people with cancer who need them.

We pulled together, working hand-in-hand to test our HiT hypothesis. When we obtained our first significant results, colleagues from a lab upstairs sent me a photo with thumbs up and smiling faces. This sort of camaraderie amongst my fellow scientists is very rewarding and I think is strengthened by the fact that we all share a mission to develop therapies for people with cancer.

As a scientist, this type of work is both exciting and scary at the same time. Pushing the boundaries of what we know, coming up with hypotheses and finding out we are right, or even wrong for me, is why I love being a scientist. Sometimes it can be heart breaking. You can try hard for a long time, working on an idea which has great potential, only for science to turn around and tell you no! You need to be a resilient person to be a scientist, disappointment and struggle can be a recurring theme. This is where the team around you is so important; I am lucky to have some fantastic colleagues.

The future

Looking to the future, we will continue to innovate. For our group, we aim to identify new HiTs to more targets. Can we get better HiTs or find them in faster ways? As a Company, we are always looking for new ways to enhance our cell therapy products. Not all the innovation we try will work, but the ones that do will enable to us to make better products at a faster rate. In the end, this will help us develop and provide the best cell therapies we can for people with cancer.