Based at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the new center will catalyze fundamental and translational research in immunology, serving as a hub for engineers, immunologists, biologists and clinicians to collaborate and share resources toward research in immunoengineering. The center opened in February and was the culmination of two years of strategic planning.
Immunoengineering is a fast-growing field that uses engineering analysis and design approaches to understand the basic mechanisms of our immune system and develop technologies to treat complex conditions. Working in partnership with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory, and the immunoengineering startup community of Chicago, the center will create an ecosystem that brings technologies from the lab to treatment.
“The University of Chicago is emerging as a leader in immunoengineering,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor. “This new center will bring together the right resources and researchers to not only better understand our immune systems, but to create and launch the innovations that will make a difference to patients.”
The center’s current work includes developing a vaccine for the virus that causes coronavirus, and to separately explore new therapeutic approaches for acute respiratory distress syndrome—a common complication experienced by patients with the most severe responses to COVID-19.
The center is led by co-directors Jeffrey Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering; and Melody Swartz, the William B. Ogden Professor of Molecular Engineering.
New funding, core facilities for research pipeline
To pave the way for research and entrepreneurship, the center plans to provide bridge funding to help fill holes in the immunoengineering research pipeline, as well as build new core facilities that researchers can use, including preclinical evaluation and single cell immunogenomics core facilities. In the future, they hope to also add a protein production facility.
In addition to filling in funding gaps in the research pipeline, the bridge funding model also allows the center to be nimble in response to sudden changes in the diagnostics and therapeutics landscape. For instance, the rapid evolution in the novel coronavirus disease in the United States in March led government agencies, private and non-profit foundations, and companies to open up funds to support new research efforts or to repurpose already-supported projects to combat the disease.
Oftentimes, proposal review and approval of the funds for research like this would take several months, significantly handicapping research efforts in a race against time. The center, relying on a small, local team of experts to review new project proposals on a rolling basis, is able to immediately mobilize stimulus funds to start new projects, with the eventual goal of attracting external support through grants or industry partnerships.
“We will create key core capabilities to streamline experimentation from the proof-of-concept stage to the next stages of clinical development,” Swartz said. “We are dedicated to maximizing the societal benefit of our discoveries and using our knowledge and expertise to create solutions that will ultimately benefit patients.”
Creating a synergy of immunoengineering research
The new center’s faculty span several departments and approach immunoengineering from a number of collaborative angles. In cancer immunotherapy, for example, researchers are working on multiple strategies to improve immune system stimulants that can amplify immune responses against cancer, a disease which can notoriously cloak itself from the immune system.
Researchers are also developing computational and experimental approaches to new vaccines and vaccine delivery methods. They are working to re-train the immune system to not attack itself, as in autoimmune disorders or in response to certain foods.
Scientists and engineers also are examining the microbiome’s role in allergies and autoimmune diseases, and are working to create diagnostic tests based on microbiotic biomarkers and to deliver treatments that can modify the microbiome. In addition, they are looking at the immune system as a whole, melding experimental and computational approaches to unravel new insights into how the immune system works under healthy and diseased conditions.
“Because we have so many research teams working in this area, we are able to really build off and learn from each other,” Swartz said. “The discoveries you make in cancer immunotherapy, for example, can be valuable in treating autoimmune diseases. This center will make those cross-lab connections even stronger.”
Becoming an ideas engine for the Chicago biotech scene
The center will work closely with the Polsky Center to commercialize and license technologies, Hubbell said. University researchers have already launched several startups in this area.
Anokion, launched from Hubbell’s lab, works to develop cures for celiac disease and multiple sclerosis by applying technologies to induce antigen tolerance. BiomeSense, spun off from the lab of CIIC member and Assoc. Prof. Savas Tay, integrates sample preparation, data collection and analytics of microbiome composition. ClostraBio seeks to address food allergies by restoring healthy intestinal microbiota compositions, and uses technologies created by Hubbell and faculty member Cathryn Nagler, the Bunning Family Professor of Pathology and Molecular Engineering.
“We hope to be the ideas engine that helps build a bigger biotechnology startup culture in Chicago,” Hubbell said. “We want to push our technologies out the door, and we want to see measurable results in terms of patents and licenses.”
The center plans to train the next generation of immunoengineers to not only understand the science and engineering behind these technologies, but also to become entrepreneurs themselves.
“We want to develop alumni who go beyond research and understand how to turn those ideas from the bench into startups,” said Shann Yu, scientific director of the center.