The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
Neha Kapate sees cell-based therapies as a new frontier in disease treatment. Driven by a strong desire to help patients, she’s using her chemical engineering background and a new cell therapy method, cellular “backpacks,” to find better ways to help patients with conditions that currently lack cures, like multiple sclerosis, or treatments, like traumatic brain injury. Learn more about Neha and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I’m working on an adoptive cell therapy method to treat a few different conditions. Adoptive cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy where immune cells are harvested from a donor, activated in a way that creates a therapeutic effect, and infused back into a patient to help them fight a disease. The cells themselves act as the therapeutic to reprogram and remodel diseased tissues by responding to different cues in the body to secrete mediators and interact with other cell types accordingly.
Our specific adoptive cell therapy approach could be used to treat neuroinflammation in the cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) or traumatic brain injury by delivering anti-inflammatory cells. We also have an ongoing project using this cell therapy to treat triple-negative breast cancer, where we deliver cells with pro-inflammatory, anti-tumor effects.
To do this, we use “backpack” particles that the Mitragotri group has developed, which are disk-shaped microparticles that can stick to a cell and uniquely activate the carrier cell, letting us better regulate therapeutic cells in the body. This allows for long-term control of the cells we’ve transferred into the patient and eliminates the need for co-administered supporting therapies.
What real-world problem does this solve?
This method will improve how we develop and deliver cell-based therapies that could treat the underlying biological processes that are vital for disease initiation and progression. This is particularly important for disorders that don’t currently have a cure and have limited methods to manage symptoms. So, in the case of MS, current treatments to manage symptoms work on peripheral cells, but we’re interested in delivering activated immune cells that can reach the brain and spinal cord to treat the disease at its source. In the case of traumatic brain injury, there are no clinically approved therapies. So, we’re hoping to use adoptive cell therapy to manage inflammation in the brain, which can mitigate further negative downstream effects. Finally, triple negative breast cancer is also a particularly debilitating disease, and we’re interested in expanding on our group’s past work to improve, so we’re always trying to find ways to better control tumor growth.
What inspired you to get into this field?
I’m very driven by the desire to help patients and perform clinically translatable research. I wanted to look at these problems in a different way to try and find solutions. Through my research, I hope to further knowledge that can be used to better treat diseases, particularly diseases that currently have no cure. In my Ph.D. program, the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program, we perform rotations in the hospital to help learn more about clinical decision making, patient perspectives, and current treatment regiments. This helps inform our research to design better therapies that can hopefully progress from bench to bedside.
What continues to motivate you?
Doing an experiment to learn new information that hasn’t been shown before is very motivating. It’s exciting to be the first one to do something and know I’m contributing to the field of knowledge that future researchers and scientists can build upon.
What excites you the most about your work?
Cell-based therapies are becoming a new frontier of disease treatment, and they offer a lot of features that can’t be achieved with traditional drug types, like proteins, nucleic acids, or antibodies. They can migrate to diseased tissues and actively sense, respond to, and interact with other mediators in the body and other cell types to elicit downstream effects. It’s cool to be able to contribute and be part of something so novel.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
Because developing cell therapies is still a relatively new area, there’s still a lot of troubleshooting to do. We must figure out how to scale up the therapy and do quality control. There’s still a lot more knowledge that needs to be obtained about how this can be made into an off-the-shelf approach.
Do you consider yourself an engineer or a scientist? How does that impact your approach to your work?
It’s probably a mix of the two. I was trained as an engineer – I majored in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and both my parents are engineers as well. That helps inform how I did science during my Ph.D. and gives me a unique perspective when approaching research questions. I have a very systematic viewpoint when tackling a problem, seeing what knobs to turn to get the desired outcome and designing experiments to help solve these difficult challenges.
Why did you want to work at the Wyss?
I really liked the interdisciplinary nature of both the Mitragotri group and the Wyss at large, interacting with people from all different backgrounds – engineers, scientists, immunologists, chemists, etc. I believe that’s how the most innovation can occur, by bringing people with different mindsets together. That’s what really drew me to the Wyss.
What’s unique about the Wyss, and how has that impacted your work?
The Wyss has so many ambitious and passionate scientists who are really at the forefront of their various subfields, which is exciting. The Institute brings this multidisciplinary group together through various community-building activities, like the Wyss Retreat. It makes for a great, stimulating scientific environment in which to do my work.
How do you collaborate with and receive support from teams across the Wyss Institute?
I’m able to chat with different folks in areas that I have less expertise in, such as immunology, which is incredibly helpful. During my time here, I’ve also had a great deal of involvement with the Veterinary Team, who assists us in figuring out study design and logistics as well executing our studies.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love spending time outside, especially now that it’s getting warmer out. The Esplanade is one of my favorite places in Boston. I like exploring new restaurants and events in the city, as well as taking day trips to hike and explore the greater Boston area. I also enjoy reading, especially contemporary realistic fiction and memoirs. Some fiction favorites include The Vanishing Half and Carrie Soto is Back. For non-fiction memoirs and biographies, I really enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
What’s something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume?
Recently I’ve gotten into pottery. I have taken a few pottery classes through MIT and already made a few bowls and a plate. It’s a fun way to disconnect from the stress of thinking about research, and it gives me an outlet to embrace my creative side and make something new in a more fluid way than I would in the lab.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
I think something in environmental science or policy to help with climate change. That would allow me to have impact in a different, more long-term way than the near-term medical impact I’m working towards now.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
I think it’s very rewarding, as well as humbling, to think about being able to discover something new that can eventually either be a therapy itself, or lead to further knowledge that can be used to devise a future therapy. It’s very exciting to have the potential to make these new advances.
I recently defended my Ph.D. and now as I’m thinking about next steps, I’m looking forward to doing research that continues to be innovative and groundbreaking, rather than incremental, as is the Institute’s motto.