NSF awards $20 million for research center

Krish Roy lab

A consortium of universities, led by Tech, has been awarded nearly $20 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to assist in the development of a new engineering research center.

The center will focus on developing technology which will allow for the production of low-cost living therapeutic cells which are able to be produced on a large scale.

The Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT) will aim to work in advancing the treatments for cancer, heart disease and other disorders by using living cells such as immune cells and stem cells.

There have already been promising results in the medical application of cell therapy, with gene-modified stem cell therapy being approved in Europe for treatment for the “bubble boy” syndrome: severe combine immune deficiency.

Part of the project is finding ways to produce these living cells in such quantities and with such regularity as to allow them to be more commonly used in medicinal practice. This includes not only development of technologies to manufacture the cells, but also designing storage and distribution systems which will allow for widespread use.

The CMaT initiative will also aid in creating a skilled and comprehensive workforce. This includes collaboration from a range of workers from across a number of different levels of education, from K-12 to postdoctoral levels. President G. P. “Bud” Peterson commented on the development of the new ERC in saying, “we will be able to capitalize in multiple areas, taking transformative research from the laboratory to practice much more quickly.”

Testing of the “drugs” has been very successful, with clinical trials showing the true effectiveness of the cell-based therapies. To move into a more widespread use within healthcare, CMaT is trying to address issues based on minimal industry standards for the processes in cell manufacturing along with the aforementioned challenges in physical production and storage of the cells.

Tech will collaborate with many other universities on the project, notably the University of Georgia and Emory University.

“There are a significant number of cell therapy trials and investments” said Steven Stice, director of the Regenerative Bioscience Centre at UGA. “But there is little or no investment in a set of consistent standardization methods to optimize how these therapies should work.”

The University of Pennsylvania, an affiliate partner in the program, has conducted over 40 clinical trials of cell-based therapies. Bruce Levine, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine there said that the challenges for the center “lie in developing manufacturing and testing processes incorporating automation that can bring costs down and allow access to more patients”.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is another partner in the project. Sean Palecek is a professor in chemical and biomedical engineering at UW Madison, with Palecek commenting on the fundamental objectives of the program.

“Our work will provide safer and more potent cell products that will allow clinical studies to establish the effectiveness of these cells as therapeutics…. We will also train the future leaders of the emerging therapeutic cell manufacturing industry. These students and their work establishing the industry will be the most significant impact of CMaT.”

The NSF also has an eye on the positive effect that CMaT and other centers will have on the country’s economy. “Over the next five years, the centers will create new knowledge and high-tech innovations, as well as transform existing industries in ways that bolster the U.S. economy, support national security and build America’s global competitiveness through the preparation of engineering graduates,” said the NSF news release.  

The four new centers named this year are each eligible for 10 years of NSF funding.