Engineering researcher wins Stand Up to Cancer award for ‘smart’ nanoparticles

John Wilson, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and of Biomedical Engineering, has received an Innovative Research Grant from Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). (photo by John Russell)

An assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and of Biomedical Engineering has received an Innovative Research Grant from Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). John Wilson, who is developing “smart” nanoparticles to reprogram cancer cells, is among 10 early-career scientists to receive the grant awards focused on immuno-oncology.

Wilson, who is also a member of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, is trying to determine how a “cold” tumor that does not respond to immunotherapies can be reprogrammed into a “hot” tumor that is recognizable by the immune system.

SU2C announced the award of $7.5 million in Innovative Research Grants (IRG) April 3 during the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), SU2C’s scientific partner. The IRG program is funded by a grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, an SU2C Visionary Supporter.

Cancer immunotherapy harnesses a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells with minimal damage to surrounding tissue while also training the immune system to remember how to kill the cancer cells if they return. New checkpoint inhibitor drugs work by reactivating the immune system’s T cells to recognize cancer cells. However, many patients do not completely respond to these therapies.

Wilson cited two reasons for this lack of response: 1) patients have nonimmunogenic or “cold” tumors that evade recognition by T cells, and 2) some patients lack a sufficient number of the correct type of anti-tumor T cells necessary to efficiently destroy tumors.

He plans to develop “smart” nanoparticles loaded with a small molecule that acts on inflammatory pathways to transform “cold” tumors into “hot” ones.

He also plans to load the nanoparticles with tumor antigens to better train T cells to recognize and attack cancer cells.

“We are combining multiple approaches, using state-of-the-art bioengineering, mouse tumor models, and a series of advanced proteomics and immunology tools,” Wilson said. “I think this is a great example of the type of crosscutting, multidisciplinary science that is possible at Vanderbilt when people from different departments and schools work together to innovate solutions to important problems.

“If successful, this research has the potential to positively impact patient outcomes by developing a versatile, safe, and scalable drug-delivery platform for personalized immunotherapy,” Wilson said.

SU2C is a charitable organization established in 2008 by film and media leaders who utilize the industry’s resources to engage the public in supporting a new, collaborative model of cancer research, and to increase awareness about cancer prevention as well as progress being made in the fight against the disease.

As SU2C’s scientific partner, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and a Scientific Advisory Committee led by Nobel Laureate Phillip A. Sharp, PhD, conduct rigorous, competitive review processes to identify the best research proposals to recommend for funding, oversee grants administration and provide expert review of research progress.

In 2016, Wilson was one of three promising young investigators nationwide to win three-year, $450,000 grants by the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. He received an ‘A’ Award for work in pediatric oncology toward developing a new class of therapeutic drugs to “retrain” the immune system against neuroblastoma. Other grantors include Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Science Foundation.

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