Jonathan Schneck on designing an artificial cell that conducts the symphony of the immune system:
What does your lab study?
SCHNECK: We study the immune system, which is like a symphony. There are many different players in this symphony, like the strings or the winds sections, represented by the different types of white blood cells. The symphony has a conductor that tells each player when to chime in, so that you get a beautiful song and not just a bunch of sounds. The conductor in the immune system is the antigen presenting cell (APC)—a cell that displays a substance that stimulates the immune system. The APCs make contact with T or B cells (types of white blood cells) and tell them to turn on or turn off and controls their responses.
My colleague from Pathology, Mathias Oelke, and I are creating an artificial cell that can act to orchestrate the symphony, in cases like cancer where the conductor has been disabled. Cancers suppress the immune system by attacking the conductor, so that the cancer can continue to grow and spread in the body. But, if we can use an artificial conductor, then we can reactivate the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer.
Tell me more about this artificial cell.
SCHNECK: We’re designing an artificial cell that can activate or repress the immune system. The artificial cell is actually a microscopic bead that acts like an APC, and using a Lego-like approach we put on different proteins that allow the artificial cell to communicate with the T cells and tells them to turn on or off. We call this bead an aAPC for artificial Antigen Presenting Cell.
The aAPC has two protein components attached: one that activates the T cell and another that identifies a specific T cell. The beauty of the system is we can build the aAPC for whatever our goals are, whether for attacking cancer cells or preventing autoimmunity.
We are developing the aAPC technology for testing in mice and on human cells. Our goal is to effectively take the aAPC from the bench to the bedside so that we can use it like a cell therapy. We hope that one day doctors can inject the aAPCs into patients as a way to activate or suppress their immune systems. In order to reach this goal, we are working closely with the John Hopkins Technology Transfer Office to figure out how to move the project into an industrial setting where a more concentrated effort and a larger workforce can be put towards product development. The project will then need a few more years of advancements before it is ready for clinical trials.
Did you always plan on developing new translational therapies?
SCHNECK: As an M.D., Ph.D., even in my training I had the strong desire to impact on clinical medicine, but not necessarily by primary clinical care. But, I knew that if I studied basic science and was successful (and had a lot of luck too) that I could do medicine on a different level. From the beginning I had a desire to create new technologies, but that was never my focus. I always concentrated on learning the basic science of how the immune system works with the hope that we can use that information to better the human condition. However, my clinical training taught me to not miss an opportunity when I saw one, like the artificial cell idea.
I started by doing a wide analysis of the immune system, and I needed certain tools to make the studies progress. In the process of developing these tools, I realized that we were forming some of the basic components of the immune system that eventually led to the concept of my artificial cell. And that’s how the research eventually took us into technology development.
You’ve been a faculty member at Johns Hopkins for 20 years, Why did you decide to join ICE?
SCHNECK: I joined ICE for two reasons really. Thematically, it makes a lot of sense to develop my project of making artificial cells in the Institute for Cell Engineering.
Also, Stephen Desiderio approached me about forming a program project that would cross-fertilize the ideas of the immunologists in ICE under a large funding mechanism. Shortly thereafter, we received a P01 project grant that was the largest basic immunology grant that Johns Hopkins has ever been awarded. As the science brought us together through the program project, then it made more sense for me to be physically closer with my peers and collaborators.
Jonathan Schneck on creating an artificial conductor to direct the immune system symphony:
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