A chemical and biomolecular engineering professor will research ways to modify human immune cells to fight against cancer with a $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Navin Varadarajan’s research concentrates on T cells, which recognize and attack disease cells — specifically chimeric antigen receptors.
“The grant gives researchers the potential to study immunotherapy and opportunity to save people’s lives,” Varadarajan said.
Varadarajan highlights the role of his Cullen College of Engineering graduate students.
“I want to stress that these students spend an enormous amount of time researching. The students play an important role, and we could not accomplish this without them,” Varadajan said.
Graduate student Ivan Liadi hopes that by graduation the project will be significant enough to make clinical trials.
“I enjoy working to save people’s lives. The project requires lots of perseverance and hard work,” Liadi said. “A single experiment takes 14-17 hours a day and it’s a lot of trial and error.”
CAR T cells have proven effective for fighting cancers that are normally more difficult to treat, Varadarajan said. These cells can multiply in the body of the patient and survive within the host, increasing the chances of attacking the tumor.
The combination of CAR T cells and other immunotherapy techniques have been effective in fighting B-cell lymphomas, such as leukemia, which are typically untreatable outside of stem cell transplantation.
“We can’t tell if the treatment will completely get rid of cancer, but it will increase chances of fighting cancer. My goal is to continue to fix the loop holes and determine how likely the treatment will be effective to patients,” said Varadarajan.
Varadarajan will use the nanowell array, a polymer slide holding thousands of individual chambers. He will expose CAR T cells to this array. This will allow him to study individual properties in relation to the ability to fight cancer, Varadarajan said.
This will help determine what molecules the cells produce in order to communicate with other immune versions.
Cells from the same collections will be infused into patients, allowing researchers to compare its properties with clinical outcomes over the course of months. This procedure will assist researchers in successfully identifying which modified T cells are most effective at fighting cancer.
About three to six months after infusion, blood will be taken from the patients and their CAR T cells will be isolated, he said.
Varadarajan will study these cells, which will be several generations removed from those the patients initially received. He will then be able to determine how offspring cells sustain properties effective at fighting cancer.
Liadi said that he hopes the grant will improve the lab’s study of cancer.