New Pilot Grants to Engineer Cancer Solutions

June 11, 2020

Two new pilot grants awarded by the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and Columbia Engineering underscore the strengths of combining cancer and engineering disciplines to problem solve the disease. 

The two winning teams are comprised of HICCC members Adolfo Ferrando, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics and of pathology and cell biology at Columbia Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons (VP&S) with collaborator, Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD, University Professor and professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering; and HICCC member Peter Sims, PhD, assistant professor of systems biology at VP&S, with Samuel Sia, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering.

Over the past year, the HICCC and Columbia Engineering have strengthened their ties on the research front, committing to tackle cancer through innovation and out-of-the-box approaches. In January, the HICCC and Columbia Engineering held an inaugural mini-symposium highlighting research where engineering and cancer biology intersect, and the symposium also helped stimulate collaborations.

The winning teams exemplify projects that are on the cutting edge of the two disciplines, addressing solutions to cancer via truly innovative scientific technologies and research methods, such as single-cell genomics, microfluidics devices, and organ-on-a-chip systems.

Drs. Sia and Sims, whose labs are located on the same floor in the Lasker Biomedical Research Building, created their joint project following the HICCC-Engineering symposium. The two tech-driven researchers are aiming to build a platform to predict, from a diagnostic sample or resected tumor, which drug or drug combination is most likely to benefit a given patient based on how the patient’s tumor tissue responds to a panel of drugs. Their pilot grant project combines the Sims lab’s expertise in single-cell genomics and slice culture—a research technique involving cut slices of resected tumor specimens that are placed in short-term culture—with Dr. Sia’s microfluidic devices, an advanced system for miniaturizing complex, unwieldy bioassays. The end goal is to develop a novel microfluidic drug screening platform for large-scale analysis of cell type-specific drug response directly on intact patient tumor tissue.

“Our approach has several potential advantages over alternative methods,” says Dr. Sims, who directs the HICCC’s Single Cell Analysis Shared Resource. “We can generate data rapidly, typically within a week of collecting the sample, the drug perturbation experiments are done directly on intact patient tumor tissue, and single-cell analysis allows us to analyze drug response in every single cell type in the tumor.”

In the Ferrando-Vunjak-Novakovic collaboration, the two researchers are leveraging Dr. Vunjak-Novakovic’s organs on a Chip (OOC) technique—mini-tissues and organs grown “in the lab”  that enable modeling of human physiology and disease—with Dr. Ferrando’s expertise in hematologic cancers, in particular, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). These two cancers are frequently associated with chemotherapy resistance, leading researchers to focus on new personalized therapeutics.

The pilot grant teams were given $80,000 and one year toward their projects. The HICCC-Columbia Engineering joint research pilot grant program funds innovative, collaborative research on topics or problems that cross disciplines and unite researchers. The cancer-engineering partnership is an evolving pact between the HICCC and Columbia Engineering, brainstorming research and educational initiatives and future funding opportunities that target inventive approaches to eradicate cancer.