If the saying that two heads are better than one is true, then joining two fields of science may be better than one to spur more advances in medicine. With a $6.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers will bring together immunologists, oncologists and biomedical engineers in an effort to build new tools to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Engineers have long been collaborating with scientists to develop new medical devices and tools, but recent advances in technology have helped scientists expand engineering concepts into fields once the sole domain of specialists. According to Johns Hopkins immunologist and lead investigator Jonathan Schneck, M.D., Ph.D., before now, engineering and immunology researchers worked together on various projects in an ad hoc way. The new Johns Hopkins Translational ImmunoEngineering (JH-TIE) Biotechnology Research Center aims to formalize the blend of engineering and immunology. Scientists have dubbed this “ImmunoEngineering.”
“When scientists work across disciplines, that’s when major advances in the fields happen,” says Schneck, professor of pathology, medicine and oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. “The advances in immunotherapy have been beacons in the darkness, but they haven’t answered everything. This is an opportunity to catalyze the next breakthroughs that we need.”
Among the projects scientists will be working on is the creation of artificial immune cells that educate the immune system about how and where to find cancer cells, setting the stage for an immune system attack on malignant cells.
Schneck says such immune cells, called antigen presenting cells, act as conductors in the symphony of the immune system. “One part of the system needs to lead the orchestra, instructing other cells when and where to integrate. Otherwise, it’s a cacophony of sounds,” he explains.
Other areas of research include using nanomaterials to program immune cells to fight disease, and analyzing how immune cells absorb, or metabolize, nutrients that affect their ability to stave off disease.
Leaders of the new center also plan to train other scientists in the immunoengineering field and educate the next generation of immunoengineers through workshops, online materials and scientific meetings.
More information about the center can be found on its website.
The JH-TIE center is planning collaborative projects with Johns Hopkins Medicine and Kimmel Cancer Center scientists Hai-Quan Mao, Jordan Green, Drew Pardoll, Jonathan Powell and Jennifer Elisseeff, and scientists at Cornell University, McMaster University, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York University Langone, the University of Maryland, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Wisconsin, the Salk Institute, Yonsei University, AsclepiX Therapeutics and NexImmune.
Funding for the research center was provided by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (1P41EB028239-01).
Under a licensing agreement between NexImmune and Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Jonathan Schneck is entitled to a share of royalty received by the university on sales of products described in this article. Dr. Schneck is also a founder of NexImmune and owns equity in the company and serves as the Chair of NexImmune’s Scientific Advisory Board.
Johns Hopkins University faculty members Aleksander Popel and Jordan Green are founders of AsclepiX Therapeutics, LLC. Drs. Popel and Green also serve in Chief Officers Roles for AsclepiX Therapeutics, LLC and are inventors of technology that has been licensed to AsclepiX Therapeutics from Johns Hopkins University. Drs. Popel and Green hold an equity ownership interest in AsclepiX Therapeutics, LLC.
Under a licensing agreement between AsclepiX Therapeutics LLC and the Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Niranhan Pandey is entitled to royalties based on this agreement. Dr. Pandey is the Senior Director of Research & Development at AsclepiX Therapeutics LLC and a part-time faculty member at Johns Hopkins University.