Dongeun Huh, PhD, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Bioengineering, is the recipient of the Cancer Research Institute’s (CRI) inaugural Technology Impact Award to advance the field of immuno-oncology.
Huh will receive a $1 million grant paid over three years to develop a microchip-based research model that mimics human cancer and immune cell interactions, a technological innovation that has the potential to accelerate the development of effective immunotherapies across different types of cancer.
“There is an urgent need within the research community for new ways to model, observe, and interrogate complex interactions between the human immune system and tumors—a dynamic interplay that current two-dimensional cell cultures and animal models cannot characterize optimally,” Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, PhD, CRI’s chief executive officer and director of scientific affairs, said in a press release.
“Dr. Huh’s microchip-based human cancer models represent a highly innovative intersection of cell biology and microengineering, which, when applied to cancer immunotherapy research, may spur advances in our understanding of how malignant human tumors interact with the immune system and surrounding tissues, providing researchers with new insights that will lead to improved cancer treatments,” she added.
Huh has teamed up with two University of Pennsylvania immunologists to carry out the project: E. John Wherry, PhD, and G. Scott Worthen, MD. Together, they will oversee the investigation of cancer-immune cell interactions using Huh’s technology.
Huh and his colleagues will use new bioengineering technology to apply microfabrication techniques originally developed for manufacturing computer chips to create a “cancer-on-a-chip” micro-device, which would enable cultures to be made of patient cancer cells.
The model will be engineered to form a network of living blood vessels that simulate the same vessels that immune cells use to circulate inside our bodies. Using this platform, Huh expects to study the interactions between cancer cells with key components of the immune system involved in cancer elimination, such as macrophages and T-cells.
Huh believes the research will lead to discoveries that could pave the way for new strategies to treat cancer with immunotherapies. In addition, the model could be developed into a screening platform to test and predict the effectiveness and safety of new drug candidates without having to test them on patients first.
“Dr. Huh’s proposal is truly exciting in terms of its potential to make an impact on how cancer immunotherapy research is conducted as well as how we predict patient response to immunotherapy,” said Mark M. Davis, PhD, professor of immunology at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and chair of the CRI Technology Impact Award’s scientific committee.
“This is sorely needed, and we also think this project could help us develop strategies that will extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more and more patients,” he added.
The CRI Technology Impact Award is a new program designed to offer scientists and researchers a platform for multidisciplinary collaboration to transform the field of immuno-oncology. Organizers hope to fund technologies that improve our understanding of the antigenic profile, cellular interplay, and mechanistic pathways within the tumor microenvironment that are critical for an effective anti-tumor response. By supporting the development of highly innovative technologies, the program aims to enable researchers to develop the next generation of cancer immunotherapies.