ATLANTA—Yuan Liu, professor in the Biology Department at Georgia State University, has developed a novel form of immunotherapy that has the potential to provide long-lasting protection against any type of cancer.
With new funding and support from Biolocity, a philanthropic, multi-institutional network that works to accelerate the commercialization of university medical technologies, she is advancing this technology closer to clinical trial.
One way cancer grows and spreads is by subverting a person’s natural immune response, making it difficult for the body to recognize cancer cells are foreign. Most immunotherapy drugs work by training the immune system to attack cancer cells, or by boosting the immune response. While immunotherapy has revolutionized the treatment of tumors, the drugs only work for a limited number of patients.
Liu’s drug works differently, by unleashing macrophages, the cells that initiate and drive the immune response and play a key role in whether the immune system eliminates or tolerates cancer cells. Instead of injecting effector cells that direct the body to attack a particular type of cancer, Liu’s technology fundamentally modifies the patient’s immune system to recognize and target all types of cancer.
Cells are taken via blood draw, and the macrophages are manipulated in the lab. The altered cells are then injected back into the tumor, where they can override the tumor’s immunosuppressive effects and rev up an immune assault. Animal and human tissue studies suggest that the protection is long-lasting and could theoretically be used against any cancer target. In one animal study, the drug successfully wiped out melanoma in mice, and 18 months later the cancer hadn’t returned. The mice developed long-term immune memory that was effective at stopping the cancer even after injection of additional cancer cells.
Liu, whose technology is the first from Georgia State to be supported by Biolocity, has received $174,000 to advance the drug closer to clinical testing. She will collaborate with Edmund (Ned) Waller, professor at Emory University School of Medicine, to conduct further testing in human tissue and work towards an investigative new drug application for the Food and Drug Administration to begin a clinical trial. In the last five years, Biolocity’s 40 portfolio technologies have resulted in 20 start-ups, two industry partnerships and three products on the market.
“Dr. Liu’s project is exceptional on many fronts,” said Shawna Khouri, Biolocity managing director. “Competition for Biolocity funding and support is high. Less than 10 percent of the projects we see are ultimately selected. Our funding committee of leaders in life science industry, start-ups and investment felt the project represented a great opportunity scientifically, clinically and commercially. We hope to be able to continue to support Georgia State’s growing health innovation ecosystem with our unique funding, project management and expert-in-residence resources.”
Liu, who holds an M.D. as well as a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology, is focused on cancer immunotherapy, acute and chronic inflammation, and cell interactions and signaling.