The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) has awarded $45 million to a multi-institutional team of researchers led by Northwestern University scientists to accelerate the development of a first-of-its-kind device to detect and treat cancer.
ARPA-H is a new federal funding organization that was established in 2022 to encourage research that has “the potential to transform entire areas of medicine and health.” Northwestern’s project is the second to be funded through ARPA-H’s first Open Broad Agency Announcement for research proposals.
The grant will cover a five-and-a-half-year effort to build and test a device that can detect inflammatory markers associated with cancer and then give treatment autonomously. Measuring just 1 centimeter in diameter, the microscopic implant will house living designed cells that both synthesize and distribute therapies when needed.
The researchers will develop the technology and test it on small and large animal models over the first four years. The team will begin human clinical trials in the fourth year, beginning with patients with recurrent ovarian cancer.
The ultimate goal is to create a gadget that can deliver personalized therapy to specific cancer patients.
“From a clinical perspective, this could be a game-changing approach to cancer therapy,” said Northwestern’s Jonathan Rivnay, PhD, MSc, a co-principal investigator on the project who leads device development. “It’s personalized, multi-modal and could improve access to care. This concept of a regulated cell-based therapy also is exciting for other areas of medicine, and this project allows us to develop the toolbox of components needed to make it a reality.”
Rivnay is a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.
Shana Kelley, the Neena B. Schwartz Professor of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering and of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, will develop new sensor chemistries and evaluate sensor performance. Kelley has appointments in McCormick, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Feinberg.
Kelley also is a member of the International Institute for Nanotechnology, the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
Working at the leading edge of bioelectronics and synthetic biology, Rivnay’s lab develops soft, biocompatible electronics equipped with living engineered cells that can synthesize and deliver therapeutic biomolecules. As a part of this work, Rivnay also leads a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded project to develop a fully implantable device to control the body’s sleep-wake cycles. Now, he joins a team — comprising engineers, physicians and multidisciplinary specialists in synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, electrical engineering and artificial intelligence — to develop a similar approach for treating cancer.
According to the investigators, the implant could dramatically improve immunotherapy outcomes for patients with ovarian, pancreatic and other difficult-to-treat cancers — potentially slashing U.S. cancer-related deaths by 50%.
“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” said Rice University bioengineer Omid Veiseh, PhD, principal investigator on the ARPA-H cooperative agreement. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”
One of the project’s biggest challenges is to overcome the harsh environment inside the human body, which is inhospitable to electronics. Not only is the body constantly moving, it also is filled with fluids that could corrode the implant. Working with Kelley, Rivnay will explore methods to leap this hurdle.
“Sensing in the complex environments in the body is a well-known, challenging task,” Rivnay said. “The Northwestern-led effort will tackle these challenges with the goal of stable and continuous monitoring of biochemical signals that will provide real-time readouts of cancer progression and therapy — rather than sparse snapshots that are more typical in current practice.”
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