Beating the enemy at its own gameJohn T. Wilson is working to beat a common childhood cancer, neuroblastoma, on its own turf by finding new ways for the body’s immune system to identify and extinguish tumors.
This promising research in the nascent field of immuno engineering by the assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering garnered two key awards in 2016: a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award and a three year, $450,000 A Award from the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Wilson’s Laboratory for Immunomodulatory Biomaterials focuses on the trans-institutional intersection of engineering and immunology to improve human health.
About half of children with neuroblastoma have an aggressive, high-risk form of the disease, Wilson said, which is resistant to treatment in part because these tumors can suppress the immune system’s defenses. Survival rate for these patients is less than 40 percent.
The NSF grant Engineering Polymeric Nanomaterials for Programming Innate Immunity will allow Wilson to develop synthetic materials to “encode” immunological messages, tightly regulating their delivery to the organs, cells and pathways of the immune system.
“This research will address a fundamental need for new tools to control, understand and harness the immune system, which has significant ramifications in vaccine development, cancer immunotherapy, and treatment of autoimmune disorders,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s goal for the Alex’s Lemonade Stand grant is to develop an implantable “immunotherapy bomb” that will retrain the patient’s immune response to sneak past a neuroblastoma tumor’s line of defense and trigger an immune response from the inside out to kill tumors. The immune cells will be triggered to remember this response in case future tumors develop.
“This support will jump-start our work in developing new therapeutics and drug delivery strategies,” Wilson said. “I am also excited about the interdisciplinary collaborations and relationships that this award will help foster, which I think will inspire creative new ideas that get us closer to finding cures for childhood cancers.”
The research is partially supported by Alex’s Lemonade Stand and National Science Foundation Career Award No. 1554623.
Top Photo: Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering John T. Wilson is on the hunt for ways to teach a cancer patient’s immune system to kill a particularly deadly kind of tumor from the inside out.