Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center immunobioengineer Dr. Matthias Stephan, who is developing the use of immune-cell-programming nanoparticles as a cancer treatment, has been named a 2018 Allen Distinguished Investigator by The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a division of the Allen Institute. He will use the three-year, $1.5 million award to help take the steps necessary to bring the approach to the clinic to treat lymphoma.
“We’re ramping up production and trying to translate this into a therapy for patients. This is funding that is hard to get from the National Cancer Institute, and that’s the gap that [the Frontiers Group is] trying to fill,” said Stephan, who develops immunotherapeutic applications for nanotechnology and biomaterials in the Clinical Research Division of Fred Hutch.
As conceived by founder Paul G. Allen, who passed away Oct. 15, the Allen Distinguished Investigator awards are designed to give scientists working on early-stage research questions the momentum to transform their fields. If successful, Stephan’s approach would transform a costly, time-intensive immunotherapy approach into a cheap, off-the-shelf product that can be administered as easily as chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy strategies in which T cells, a specialized type of immune cell, are genetically engineered to carry scientist-designed, cancer-targeting receptors known as chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs, are showing dramatic results against certain types of cancer. But in the current CAR T–programming process, it takes weeks to engineer and multiply T cells taken from patients’ blood. Stephan has developed nanoparticles that carry the same genetic reprogramming tools, but they can be infused into the patient, where they can begin targeting and reprogramming T cells within 24 hours.
Stephan’s approach has shown dramatic results in the lab, but he’s now facing the challenge of making the leap from the lab to the clinic. To turn his big idea into an actual therapeutic approach, Stephan must contend with new issues, such as how to scale up production of the nanoparticles and how to make them therapeutic grade, as well as testing them in closer-to-human preclinical models.
The Allen Distinguished Investigator award will support the process of scaling and safety testing needed to bring Stephan’s nanoparticles to patients.
And just as immunotherapy is being aimed at a range of cancer types, Stephan believes the nanoparticles will have applications beyond lymphoma.
“The results we’re getting from these studies apply for any kind of nanoparticle that we’re developing for CAR or T-cell receptor programming,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re treating; if you know it’s safe to use the nanoparticle, it doesn’t matter what the cargo is.”
The value of the award goes far beyond the monetary support, said Stephan, who attended the annual gathering of Allen Distinguished Investigators earlier this month. Awardees come from around the world and study a wide range of topics, which opens up the possibility of unforeseen yet fruitful collaborations.
“It forces you to get out of your comfort zone,” Stephan said. As Allen Distinguished Investigators, researchers in apparently unconnected fields can share ideas and find new ways to apply their work, and he aims to take advantage of these opportunities. And he’s thrilled to join a community of world-class investigators working at the forefront of their respective fields.
“I personally consider it so far the highest honor I’ve received in terms of foundation awards,” Stephan said.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.