Collaborative team of BIOE faculty starts new joint center for mRNA delivery and cancer immunotherapy

10/17/2023 Bethan Owen

Working together with peers at Zhejiang University, Illinois bioengineering faculty members are playing key roles in a new joint center for mRNA delivery and cancer immunotherapy.

Written by Bethan Owen

Illinois bioengineering faculty members are playing key roles in a new joint center for mRNA delivery and cancer immunotherapy (CCIT). This new center is co-lead by Professor Shuming Nie at UIUC and by Professor Youqing Shen at Zhejiang University (ZJU). It involves a collaborative team of eight faculty investigators, and is part of a broader collaboration in research and education between UIUC and the ZJU International Campus in China.  

ZJU international campus
ZJU international campus

 Inspired by the recent success of mRNA-based COVID vaccines, the center is focused on the exciting potential of mRNA delivery systems and cancer immunotherapy.

“While showing great success in the era of COVID-19, mRNA therapeutics have not been very successful for cancer treatment,” said Hua Wang, bioengineering and materials science professor and co-investigator. “And that’s the motivation for this project. The goal is to develop an mRNA vaccine that can show robust immune response and therapeutic benefit against various types of cancer, especially solid tumors that are resistant to existing therapies.”

mRNA vaccines work well against COVID in part because of the known targets (e.g., spike proteins) on the COVID virus. Vaccines can be designed to specifically and effectively target these proteins, where cancer cells tend to be less predictable and more specialized to individuals. Additionally, for a cancer vaccine to work, approaches to properly stimulate the adaptive immunity arm of the body, in addition to the humoral immunity that most viral vaccines are focused on, are essential.

Bioengineering professor & co-lead of the CCIT, Shuming Nie
Bioengineering professor & co-lead of the CCIT, Shuming Nie

In the face of these challenges, the team is optimistic that this new center could help researchers make significant strides in the right direction.

“There are some really interesting approaches and very innovative technologies to overcome these obstacles that I look forward to seeing in action,” said bioengineering professor Shuming Nie, co-lead of the CCIT.

Some of these innovative technologies include identifying new antigens specific to tumor cells that will make it easier to target those tumors, and using nontraditional platforms, such as smart lipid nanoparticles and immune cell homing materials, to deliver mRNA to specific immune cells the body. Both of these methods are significantly different from the standard approach, and have the potential to change the way mRNA vaccines are used in cancer treatments.

“This center offers a great potential to revolutionize mRNA-based therapeutic cancer vaccines with enhanced antitumor efficacy, especially for solid tumors,” said co-investigator and bioengineering professor Xing Wang.

In addition to the exciting potential in cancer research, the team looks forward to the opportunities for interdisciplinary research and discovery with their peers both in Illinois and at ZJU.

“As members of the Cancer Center at Illinois, we are excited at this interdisciplinary opportunity presented to us through the UIUC/ZJU collaboration,” said co-investigator and bioengineering professor Joseph Irudayaraj. “Although we are mostly from bioengineering, interestingly enough, we all have very different academic training and backgrounds. The amalgamation of this diverse expertise is the one that is most intriguing  to me.”

For more information, see UIUC-ZJU joint research enterprise.


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This story was published October 17, 2023.