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Tali Konry wants to design a more effective serial killer.
That may sound a little sketchy until you learn that Konry’s serial killers are immune cells, and their target is cancer.
Konry, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, is developing a technology that will address one of the most daunting challenges in cellular immunotherapy: the low success rates in humans. Federal research agencies are so intrigued by her research that in 2018 alone, they awarded her three prestigious grants totaling more than $2.6 million.
To understand why the federal government finds Konry’s technology so promising, you have to understand the current challenges in immuno-oncology—an approach to treating cancer by harnessing a patient’s own disease-fighting cells.
Lazy cells One of the reasons immune-based cancer therapy has such a low success rate in treating cancer is that immune cells are like people: some are lazy, while others are super-achievers. As a result, when an army of immune cells is injected into a patient, the treatment is diluted by a high percentage of ineffective “soldiers.” The cancer cells often retain the upper hand, reproducing at a rate much faster than the immune cells can kill them.
The challenge for cancer researchers, according to Konry, is to identify the “hyperactive” killers for each type of cancer and engineer the other immune cells to be more like them.
That’s where Konry’s technology comes in.
The first step is to identify which immune cells are serial killers for a particular type of cancer. Konry has developed a single-cell technology that allows researchers to feed immune cells one by one into a microscopic chamber and watch them interact with the cancer cells.
“We are making the immune reaction visible in real time,” said Konry.
Whenever an immune cell kills a cancer cell, it lights up with a fluorescent glow. (Link to 5 second video: cut what’s in red. Leave the above in bold if it’s a hotlink, but take out of bold if it’s an embedded video) Most immune cells float around in the solution without doing much of anything. But a select few go on a killing rampage, setting a whole series of cancer cells aglow.
“Voila,” a serial killer has been identified.
But this is only the first step in the process. Konry’s technology will also enable researchers to isolate the highly efficient immune cells and extract them for further evaluation.
This has the potential to become an important tool for researchers in biomedicine and pharmacology, allowing them to conduct cell autopsies on killer cells to determine their specific “signature” of proteins, genes, lipids, and metabolites.
“Once this complex biological signature is determined, scientists can re-engineer the lazy cells to be more like the serial killers, creating an army of cancer-fighting immune cells that is far more potent than current treatments,” Saheli Sarkar, a senior research assistant in The Konry Lab.
Down the road, Konry’s technology may also expand the reach of personalized medicine. Since every patient’s cancer and internal biology is different, the complex signature of the most potent immune cells to fight cancer varies from person to person. By creating the ability to run single-cell tests on a person’s cancer, the treatment can be customized to that person’s biology.
“Our long-term goal is to make immunotherapy more personalized,” said Konry.