Technology-Driven Future of Cancer Research

Art courtesy of Kate Adamala, Ph.D.

Lab-engineered cells are injected into a patient where they latch onto a tumor and deliver a lethal therapeutic payload. Another type of synthetic cells attaches to the inside of a person’s intestines and becomes detectable using ultrasound if they encounter cancerous cells. These are the kinds of groundbreaking projects that came out of October’s virtual Synthetic Biology (SynBio) & Cancer Jumpstart coordinated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

The KI-facilitated event brought together 50 synthetic biologists, cancer researchers, computational scientists and bioengineers across the US and internationally with the goal of thinking big when it comes to interrogating and fighting cancer. At the event, the participants generated big ideas, and formed teams around them. Since then, teams have been busy doing preliminary experiments and developing grant proposals that will help bring these ideas out of science fiction into reality. 

“Fake cells producing antibodies? That’s not even a thing, yet,” says Dario Palmieri, Ph.D., whose project involves creating synthetic immune cells. Palmieri is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics at Ohio State University. He and his teammate, Kate Adamala, Ph.D., have become good friends in the months since meeting online at the Jumpstart. “I met Dario whom I would never meet otherwise, even though we got Ph.D.s in Italy at the same time,” says Adamala, an Assistant Professor of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development at the University of Minnesota. “We’ve never run into each other because we were in completely different scientific communities.” 

Now, says Palmieri, they are close collaborators and friends. He has sent her antibodies he designed and she is putting them into the cells she works with. They are hoping to generate preliminary data for a mid-sized grant proposal. Ideally, that will lead to an even larger grant that will allow them to bring these technologies to fruition. “What we hope is going to happen one day, in probably say 20 years, is that a cancer patient can be treated with synthetic cells, which have a therapeutic and diagnostic effect at the same time.”

Art courtesy of Kate Adamala, Ph.D.

Running In Different Circles

The idea for the Jumpstart was born out of a fascination with synthetic biology on the part of NCI and NIBIB program officers. Synthetic biology is a relatively new field that focuses on the design, construction, and characterization of improved or novel biological systems using engineering design principles. NCI program officer Michelle Berny-Lang, Ph.D. and her colleagues, who had been keeping an eye on the field, wanted to know how many cancer-focused synthetic biology projects were being supported by NCI. When they looked, they found precious few.

“We wanted to increase the application of these promising approaches to cancer research,” Berny-Lang says. “We thought one major reason for the lack of existing projects was that these investigators often run in different research circles.” 

For example, Cheryl Kerfeld, Ph.D. is a synthetic biologist, a professor of structural bioengineering at Michigan State University and Berkeley National Lab and she has never worked in cancer biology. “We make little devices that we can use to program metabolism in organisms,” Kerfeld says. At the Jumpstart, she wound up on a large team that included Texas A&M’s Taylor Ware, Ph.D., a materials scientist whom she says she would have never met if it hadn’t been for the Jumpstart. Ware and Kerfeld have since split off into their own group, recruited a third scientist, and have submitted a grant proposal to the NIH that will apply synthetic biology to the treatment of urinary tract infections.  If the proposed strategies are successful, they could also be applied to cancer.

Ideas That Motivate Scientists

Art courtesy of Kate Adamala, Ph.D.

The Jumpstart served to introduce cancer researchers to synthetic biologists like Kerfeld and the cutting-edge technologies they are developing. Likewise, synthetic biologists, bioengineers and computational scientists were introduced to the most pressing needs and challenges faced by the cancer researchers. The event started with Microlabs, three short virtual sessions devoted to various research topics. Those were followed by a three-day Jumpstart focused on getting people working together. “I really saw these natural connections forming. The virtual methods and meeting design worked. Everyone was obviously feeling enthusiastic about thinking creatively together,” says Berny-Lang.

That enthusiasm is exemplified by Amir Zarrinpar’s, MD, PhD, team, which has met about 20 times since the Jumpstart and just submitted a grant application. Zarrinpar is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego where he studies the microbiome. He and his team are hoping to engineer gut bacteria to detect cancer and then modify the tumor environment to suppress cancer progression. “The innovation here is that, since we’re using bacteria that are already living in the gut, we don’t have the problem of bacteria not being able to survive in the hostile intestinal environment.”

Zarrinpar says he’s looking forward to seeing the science that comes from the other teams, as well. “As I listened to the other projects, I thought: ‘This is going to be something I will probably read about one day.’” 

Berny-Lang is also hopeful that these new collaborations transform cancer research and treatment. “There are some obvious areas where synthetic biology can impact cancer. I think there’s good work to be done there. But I feel that the final diversity of projects that we saw was broader and more novel than those obvious areas. As these powerful tools and technologies are validated and their potential demonstrated, ideally they will be widely adopted across cancer research,” she said. That’s the ultimate goal. “Bringing eager scientists together to explore and collaborate was an important early step.”