If the saying that two heads are better than one is true, then joining two fields of science may be better than one to spur more advances in medicine. With a $6.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers will bring together immunologists, oncologists and biomedical engineers in an effort to build new tools to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Engineers have long been collaborating with scientists to develop new medical devices and tools, but recent advances in technology have helped scientists expand engineering concepts into fields once the sole domain of specialists. According to Johns Hopkins immunologist and lead investigator Jonathan Schneck, before now, engineering and immunology researchers worked together on various projects in an ad hoc way. The new Johns Hopkins Translational ImmunoEngineering Biotechnology Research Center aims to formalize the blend of engineering and immunology. Scientists have dubbed this immunoengineering.
“When scientists work across disciplines, that’s when major advances in the fields happen,” says Schneck, professor of pathology, medicine and oncology at the school of medicine and member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. “The advances in immunotherapy have been beacons in the darkness, but they haven’t answered everything. This is an opportunity to catalyze the next breakthroughs that we need.”
Among the projects scientists will be working on is the creation of artificial immune cells that educate the immune system about how and where to find cancer cells, setting the stage for an immune system attack on malignant cells. Schneck says such immune cells, called antigen-presenting cells, act as conductors in the symphony of the immune system. “One part of the system needs to lead the orchestra, instructing other cells when and where to integrate. Otherwise, it’s a cacophony of sounds,” he explains.
Other areas of research include using nanomaterials to program immune cells to fight disease and analyzing how immune cells absorb, or metabolize, nutrients that affect their ability to stave off disease. Leaders of the new center also plan to train other scientists in the immunoengineering field and educate the next generation of immunoengineers through workshops, online materials and scientific meetings.