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Changing the calculus of cancer treatment

We are developing multiple new approaches to fighting cancer to enable the next generation of effective treatments

This year’s American Cancer Society’s cancer statistics report revealed that despite falling rates of some cancers over the last few decades, the incidence of breast, prostate, oral cavity, melanoma, and kidney cancers has been rising in recent years. Most concerningly, colorectal cancer has jumped to become the leading cause of cancer deaths in adults under 50. Despite the strides made by new treatments like immunotherapy, cancer remains a formidable foe.  

At the Wyss Institute, we are pursuing a number of approaches to create the next generation of cancer treatments that could overcome current roadblocks, improve existing therapies, and create entirely novel modalities to fight one of human health’s oldest enemies.  

Unleashing the immune system 

Immunotherapies like checkpoint inhibitors have revolutionized cancer treatment, but science is still at the early stages of understanding how to use elements of the body’s own immune system to defeat cancer. We are pursuing multiple immune-focused avenues of research to advance the field’s knowledge and create useful therapies. 

Changing the calculus of cancer treatment
T cells (blue) are stimulated by their interactions with fibers in the micro-scaffold (orange) in a way that mimics their expansion by antigen-presenting cells (APCs), producing higher-quality T cells for immunotherapy treatments. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Our Biomaterial Scaffolds for T Cell Expansion aim to overcome a critical roadblock in T cell therapies: the time, expense, and inefficiency of multiplying a patient’s T cells outside of their bodies. Our scaffolds are loaded with interleukin 2 and mimic the way that antigen-presenting cells (APCs) activate T cells in the body. They can be customized with any number of T cell-activating molecules to expand T cell populations with higher efficiency and more patient-specific control than standard approaches. 

Just like vaccines can successfully prime the immune system to recognize and neutralize invading pathogens, our DoriVac technology can present both tumor antigen and adjuvant ligands to antigen-presenting cells (APCs) with nano-scale precision. Its underlying structure is DNA folded in origami style into “blocks” to which antigens and adjuvants are then attached. In mouse models, this technology produced strong tumor-inhibiting responses, including the activation of natural killer cells and synergizing with a clinical stage checkpoint inhibitors. It offers great potential for enhanced personalized cancer immunotherapies. 

Getting cancer drugs to tumors 

Changing the calculus of cancer treatment
The SomaCode team developed a technology that helps deliver cell therapies to their targets in the body. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

While immunotherapies and cell therapies are typically infused into the blood for systemic effects, often cancer starts in specific places in the body, and targeting these therapies to those locations would improve their outcomes. SomaCode is a platform technology that identifies molecular signatures of disease and engineers therapeutic cells to home to those signatures, like a car navigating to a specific zip code. The team has successfully used this technology to deliver T cells to target tissues in mice, and it could be used with any cell type with therapeutic potential.  

Melanoma is one of the deadliest cancers and thus one of the more attractive targets for immunotherapy, but only a fraction of drugs delivered systemically make it to the skin. A collaborative team from the labs of Natalie Artzi and David Walt created a new treatment modality that combines non-invasive microneedle delivery of an inflammatory nanoparticle directly into the skin with focused ultrasound. This combination resulted in a 100% survival rate of mice with otherwise fatal melanoma.  

More potent protein drugs 

Protein-based drugs like recombinant proteins and antibodies are at the cutting-edge of biomedical treatments for cancer, but many of them also cause toxicities because they also affect healthy tissues. Our AminoX platform technology uses non-standard amino acids (nsAAs) to engineer protein drugs that are only active in the tumor microenvironment. In comparison to conventional protein drugs, which only bind their target transiently yet everywhere in the body, nsAA-containing protein drugs can provide stronger, longer-lasting, and locally targeted anti-cancer effects. 

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Help us deliver the next generation of cancer treatments

Eliminating the threat of cancer is an all-hands-on-deck goal, and requires people and resources from all areas of academia, industry, and government. Get in touch today if you are interested in helping to advance these projects or getting involved in other ways.

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