Steven Stice is leading researchers at the University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center in a newly funded research consortium designed to hasten the development of advanced cell therapies for a range of chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
With $20 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies, dubbed CMaT, will bring together RBC researchers, industry partners, clinicians, engineers, cell biologists and immunologists.
“Partnerships of this nature-that span different universities and sectors-are critical to advancing human health around the world,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead, “and I want to congratulate Dr. Stice and his team at the University of Georgia for helping to drive this important research center.”
The flow of innovative ideas and techniques from this regional “manufacturing hub” based at the Georgia Institute of Technology could create a pipeline of therapies and lifetime cures for an aging population challenged by escalating chronic diseases.
“We have a richer set of engineering resources to draw on than ever before, due in large part to the incredible talent UGA has been able to attract from across the country and around the world,” said Stice, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “Working alongside seasoned veterans like GRA Eminent Scholar Art Edison in the university’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, we can break through manufacturing bottlenecks and bring a new approach in CAR-T cell therapy to treat cancer.”
Georgia Tech is able to host this research thanks in part to a previous gift of $16 million from the Atlanta-based Marcus Foundation to build a research center for therapeutic cell characterization and manufacturing. Additional funding from the Georgia Research Alliance and Georgia Tech sources bring the total investment in the center to $23 million.
“The support of the Georgia Research Alliance and investments by the University of Georgia in talented faculty members who are committed to working with colleagues across the state and beyond is cementing Georgia’s reputation as a hub of research activity,” said UGA Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten.
UGA is one of three major partners, including the University of Wisconsin and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, as well as affiliate partners such as the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, the Gladstone Institutes and Michigan Technological University. Additional international academic partners, as well as industry and the U.S. national laboratories, also will be critical to this large-scale, collaborative effort.
CMaT’s vision is to bring together a diverse group of scientists who can yield new levels of efficiency and productivity to make cell therapies more affordable and, therefore, more accessible.
UGA’s College of Engineering Dean Donald J. Leo noted the benefits of the partnership for CMaT.
“The distance between discovery and delivery is dramatically shrinking,” said Leo. “Now is the time to bring people with different expertise together to work as one-something we’re all really excited about.”
Numerous clinical trials with various types of cells already have been completed, and many others trials are underway. However, the next “scalable method” as highlighted by the group, points to the translational challenge of creating a reliable, mass-produced “living cell” supply chain.
“Unlike pharmaceuticals and other products now used in medical treatments, cells are living entities that can significantly change depending on nuances in the way they are grown, stored and otherwise manipulated,” said CMaT Director Krishnendu Roy. “The center will develop new engineering tools and scalable methods to better characterize, expand, transport and store cells so they provide consistent therapeutic effects, allowing them to be used in standardized therapies by clinicians to serve large numbers of patients worldwide.”
In research laboratories and hospitals across the country, therapeutic cells often are processed in small non-uniform batches, a very expensive and time-consuming process with limited capacity to service large population groups affected by disease.
“The field is maturing to a point where we can now say it’s no longer at the developing stage,” said Stice. “We’re past the discovery point. Now is the time to scale-up, streamline and become more efficient.”
CMaT research has three primary goals.
The first is to advance new innovations and tools, such as predictive cell therapy, in which properties or biomarkers of a given type of cell “predict” its safety, efficacy or potency. Tools like this could aid in the development of patient-specific therapies.
The second goal is to develop regulatory guidelines and standards that will reduce the time it takes for technologies to move from the laboratory to commercial scale.
The final goal centers on workforce development and the use of education as an instrument to recruit, inspire and train the next generation of engineering innovators and leaders.
“CMaT’s leadership will create more agile partnerships across universities, the healthcare community and the biotech industry,” said UGA Vice President for Research David Lee. “By creating a regional hub, we are bridging the innovation gap and making it easier to advance ideas that spur economic development.”