Immunotherapy-simplifying nanoparticle research gets boost from National Science Foundation

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements
Dr. Matthias Stephan Fred Hutch file

Dr. Matthias Stephan receives NSF EAGER award to develop immunotherapy-simplifying nanoparticles

Dr. Matthias Stephan of the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has received an Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research, or EAGER, from the National Science Foundation. The award will support his efforts to develop an off-the-shelf nanoparticle technology designed to simplify the process of engineering chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, T cells to fight cancer. EAGERs support “high-risk, high-payoff” projects which, while untested, are potentially transformative.

CAR T cells are showing promise against blood cancers — but the therapy can only be produced in a few specialized facilities. The engineering process is “getting more and more complicated,” said Stephan. “Each step requires expertise and specialized machines or instruments. It takes a village of trained people in a large space.”

Currently, patients can only receive this experimental cellular immunotherapy at a few specialized cancer centers, including Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Stephan is working to create a method that will shave several steps off the process of engineering the therapeutic cells, making it possible for cancer patients to receive cost-effective cellular immunotherapy in their hometown hospitals.

“The goal is to try to decentralize CAR-T production so patients don’t need to move to the few cancer centers that offer CAR-T therapy,” said Stephan.

The $300,000, two-year EAGER will support his development of injectable, biodegradable nanoparticles that will carry everything needed to engineer a patient’s T cells into robust cancer killers.  

Stephan is an expert in immunobioengineering, a discipline that applies innovative materials engineering to immune-based therapies to produce better treatments. His other awards include a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health and a Future Leaders in Translational Research award from the American Association for Cancer Research.

— Sabrina Richards / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Melinda Biernacki Photo courtesy of Dr. Biernacki

Dr. Melinda Biernacki receives grant from the Rally Foundation   

Dr. Melinda Biernacki, a senior hematology-oncology fellow at Fred Hutch, has received a $25,000 grant from the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research, a national nonprofit organization. She will apply the funding to develop targeted immunotherapy against pediatric acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.

“I am delighted that the Rally Foundation for Childhood Cancer Research has chosen to fund this project,” said Biernacki, who works in the laboratory of Dr. Marie Bleakley in the Clinical Research Division. “This award provides critical support that will help enable us to move toward the long-term goal of developing new targeted, less-toxic immune therapies for childhood acute leukemia.”

Specifically, Biernacki said, the project aims to identify immune T cells that can recognize specific mutations in childhood AML, with the ultimate goal of using these T cells to create immune therapies to safely and effectively treat children with this type of leukemia.

AML is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes a large number of abnormal blood cells. Cancers that are acute usually get worse quickly if they are not treated.

Rally and its medical advisory board, which consists of leading childhood cancer researchers from across the nation, award grants through a competitive, dual peer-review process that assures the best research is funded. All grants are made in honor or memory of a Rally Kid, a child who has fought or is currently fighting cancer.

“We are absolutely thrilled to support Dr. Biernacki’s cutting-edge pediatric cancer research,” said Dean Crowe, founder and CEO of Rally. “It is important to fund promising scientists like her as we work toward closing the childhood cancer research funding gap so that no parent ever has to hear that there is no curative option for their child.”

This grant is part of the $2 million Rally will be awarding this year to 22 hospitals and research centers nationwide. Since its founding in 2005, Rally has distributed more than $9 million to more than 217 childhood cancer research projects nationwide, including basic science, fellowships and clinical trials. According to the Rally Foundation, only 4 percent of federal funding is dedicated to childhood cancer research.

— Kristen Woodward / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Jesse Bloom
Dr. Jesse Bloom Fred Hutch file

Dr. Jesse Bloom receives American Society for Virology early-career researcher award

The American Society for Virology selected evolutionary biologist Dr. Jesse Bloom to receive one of two Ann Palmenberg Junior Investigator Awards. The award was announced at ASV’s annual meeting last month at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Bloom gave a short plenary lecture about his work on the evolution of the human influenza virus at the meeting.

Fred Hutch virologists Drs. Michael Emerman and Harmit Malik nominated Bloom for the award. In the five years since he launched his laboratory research team at the Hutch, Bloom has led several research projects combining computational and experimental approaches to uncover influenza’s evolutionary trajectories — with the ultimate goal of better understanding the virus’ interplay with our immune systems.

In his relatively short time as a research faculty member at the Hutch, “the Bloom Lab has had meteoric success,” Emerman and Malik wrote. “He has already made extraordinary contributions towards understanding the evolution of pathogenic human viruses.”

—  Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

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