Goal to develop tumor-homing stem cell beacons for immune-based cancer therapy

Shawn Hingtgen, Ph.D., Gianpietro Dotti, Ph.D., and Samir Mitragotri, Ph.D., had an idea – collaborate to create a cell therapy unlike any other to target hard-to-treat cancers.

Shawn Hingtgen, Ph.D., works with Andrew Satterlee, Ph.D. (Photo By Jeyhoun Allebaugh/UNC-Chapel Hill).

The three researchers from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Harvard University, are utilizing each of their strengths to develop a new approach to cell therapy for brain cancer.

Hingtgen said their team is developing a hybrid cell therapy that begins by loading neural stem cells with nanoparticle “backpacks”. When released into the brain, the cells will crawl through tissue, arrive at the solid brain cancer site while tracking down invasive tumor regions, and release their nanoparticle payload. These cell/particle hybrids will then work in concert with engineered CAR-T cells to destroy the tumor.

“The project blends our expertise in tumor-homing cell therapies with Dr. Dotti’s expertise on CAR-T/immune therapies and Dr. Mitragotri’s expertise in pioneering cellular ‘backpack’ nanoparticles arrayed on the surface of cells,” Hingtgen said.

Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2) heard about and believed in their innovation – offering the team a grant of $170,000 to pursue their research. The grant helps extend initial work on the project that was funded by two Eshelman Institute for Innovation grants.

ABC2 Chief Executive Officer Max Wallace said, “When I met Shawn, I knew his work with stem cells was important. Now you’ve got this really smart group coming together to do something that’s never been done before.”

Andrew Satterlee, Ph.D., is working on the project in Hingtgen’s lab. Satterlee said he understands the need for ground-breaking, patient-specific treatments because he was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 20. About his work in the lab, Satterlee said, “I do feel like we are doing good science and focusing on the real goal of helping people.”

Hingtgen said cell therapies are changing the landscape of cancer treatment and physicians are able to provide patients with a more tailored treatment plan.

“We are now poised to further develop this approach and create a revolutionary weapon against cancer,” he said.

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