No. 73
Signing Off for 2017

As the calendar year draws to a close, we reflect on the impact of our signature programs since the Koch Institute's founding. Throughout the year, it has been our honor to share success stories from both the Frontier Research Program, including trainee-driven research that has taken laboratories in new directions and innovative companies that have taken biotech by storm, and the Bridge Project collaboration with Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center — which was recently featured on MIT News. We are also delighted to share two in-depth presentations about some of the clinical progress that has inspired supporters and benefited patients over the past five-plus years. We look forward to much more, from both programs, as we bring together new perspectives and new collaborators to accelerate cancer solutions in 2018 and beyond.

Manalis Mirrors Multiple Myeloma Response Rates

And the KI is nine for nine! Comparing measurements of cancer cell mass accumulation rates obtained using their signature cell-weighing technology to patient outcomes, a new paper in Nature Communications shows that the Manalis Lab has taken an important step in demonstrating that they can accurately predict how tumors will respond to treatment, before treatment is given. Building on previous work conducted under the auspices of the Bridge Project, researchers at the KI and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute tested a variety of drugs and combination therapies on tumor cells from nine multiple myeloma patients. In all of the pilot study's cases, measurements of cells' sensitivity and resistance in the lab matched patient response to actual treatment in the clinic. The team is now working to validate their approach in a larger clinical study and hopes to expand their investigations to include other cancer types as well. Read more.

Following the Rhodes to Success

Congratulations to Jacks Lab UROP and newly-named Rhodes Scholar Mary Clare Beytagh! One of 32 recipients nationwide for 2018, Beytagh is the second Jacks Lab UROP in three years to be given this prestigious academic distinction. She was also recently featured by MIT News in a profile detailing her various successes and interests in the fields of medicine, science, ballet, and poetry. Beytagh hopes to one day complete a MD-PhD program in cancer biology and write stories that humanize patients by focusing on the social and economic determinants of health. Read more.

CRISPR Goes Non-viral!

News worth following! As published in Nature Biotechnology, KI researchers in the Anderson and Langer Labs have developed nanoparticles to safely and efficiently deliver CRISPR/Cas9 genome-editing to cells, overcoming several of the challenges associated with more traditional methods that rely on benign viruses to transport their cargo. The team's nonviral delivery system includes an enhanced RNA guide molecule, whose chemical modifications were inspired by the structure of the original protein/RNA complex. Their approach successfully edited a therapeutically-relevant target gene in livers of adult mice, opening new possibilities for CRISPR-mediated treatments across multiple diseases and disorders. Click here and share to help this work go non-viral!

Cancer Metabolism Makes Its Mark

For the second year in a row, a KI alum has been named a winner of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists! Jared Mayers — a former doctoral student in the Vander Heiden Lab and now a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital — was selected for the prize based on the work described in his essay, "Metabolic markers as cancer clues." The essay recounts Mayers' investigations using analysis of whole-body metabolic markers to understand early-stage cancer progression and identify potential metabolic weaknesses that could be exploited therapeutically. The approach also revealed strong evidence that tumors initiated by the same genetic changes can have wildly different effects on whole-body and cellular metabolism depending on the tumor’s tissue of origin. These findings suggest a shifting paradigm for personalized medicine, arguing that context plays as critical a role as the genetic drivers, and offering new insights into early disease stages. In recognition of his illuminating research and essay, Mayers — similarly to 2016 prize winner and KI alumna Canan Dagdeviren — traveled to Stockholm to receive his medal and attended the 2017 Nobel Prize Ceremony. Read Mayers' award-winning essay here.

Special Biops: Cell-Free DNAgents in the Field

Liquid biopsies hold expanded potential for more and more patients, thanks to improved techniques developed by researchers at the KI, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and MGH Cancer Center. By analyzing fragments of DNA expelled by cancer cells into the bloodstream, the team, led by Love Lab alumnus Viktor Adalsteinsson, was able to detect and profile the mutations present in these tumors, presenting a viable alternative to traditional biopsy sequencing. As shown in Nature Communications, their non-invasive “cell-free” approach offers particular promise for understanding metastatic cancer progression and treatment response in advanced disease states. The team’s initial work was supported in part by a TRANSCEND grant through the KI's alliance with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Read more.

KI Overachievers Under 30

With impressive track records in biomedical engineering and unwavering commitment to improving human health, the KI's Ritu Raman and Andrew Warren were chosen out of thousands of young visionaries to be honored by Forbes 30 Under 30 in the categories of Science and Health, respectively. Raman, a postdoctoral fellow in the KI's Langer Lab, was selected for her research studying the dynamic interactions between biological and synthetic materials and developing bio-hybrid systems to tackle different applications. Warren is an alumnus of the KI's Bhatia Lab and now founding scientist and product development lead at Glympse Bio. He was selected for his work using modular nanoparticle sensors to create diagnostics for cancer, clotting disorders, and liver fibrosis. Learn more about all of this year's Forbes 30 Under 30 recipients here.

Lumicell's Success Shines Bright

Lumicell, a Koch Institute startup, is lighting up the Boston biotech scene! With its Lumicell System, the company aims to eliminate the need for repeat cancer surgeries, reduce the incidence of relapse, and save billions in healthcare costs. The low-cost technology comprises an injectable fluorescing agent and hand-held imaging wand, which emits light at a specific wavelength to illuminate, in real time, even single cancer cells left in surgical margins. Earlier this month, the company presented data from its ongoing Phase 2 clinical study in breast cancer patients showing removal of tumors as small as 1 mm. Trials are currently underway in other solid tumors — including prostate, colorectal, esophageal and pancreatic cancers — and being planned for lung, ovarian, and brain cancers. In a nod to the recently announced success of its clinical studies, Lumicell announced a $28.7 million Series C financing round.

As linked to earlier in this issue, on November 29, guests of the KI got an inside look at Lumicell's latest progress at SOLUTIONS with/in/sight, "Cells in the City." Lumicell's Linda Griffith, W. David Lee, and Moungi Bawendi joined SQZ Biotechnology's Armon Sharei and Amy Schulman to discuss their journeys from bench to biotech, and how grassroots funding from the Koch Institute’s signature Frontier Research Program helped propel these high-risk ideas into high-reward technology. Watch the presentations here and see photos from the event here.

Feel the Birn-baum

Congratulations to the newest member of our engineering faculty, Michael Birnbaum, for being named a recipient of a 2017 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The fellowship's purpose is to allow early-career scientists and engineers to pursue boundary-pushing research over the course of five years. Birnbaum, the Eugene Bell Career Development Professor in Tissue Engineering and an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Biological Engineeering, was selected for his lab's work in combining mechanistic immunology, protein engineering, and computational methods to better understand and manipulate immune recognition and signaling. Read more

The Spirit of Inquiry

Driven by curiosity and encouraged by mentors, mechanic-turned-cancer researcher Ryan Kohn of the Jacks Lab has found his niche at the Koch Institute. Kohn, who is currently pursuing a PhD in biology at MIT, found his interest in cancer research piqued after the loss of two close family members, and, despite an unconventional background, followed his fascination to study cancer immunotherapy. At the KI, Kohn relishes in the translational potential of his research, the scientific freedom that the lab offers to explore bold and out-of-the-box ideas, and the diversity and ideals that the MIT community has to offer. Read more.

Bhatia in the Spotlight

What an exciting few months it has been for KI member and Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine Director Sangeeta Bhatia! Perhaps most notably, her work combining nanotechnology and medicine to develop cancer diagnostics garnered Xconomy's prestigious "Innovation at the Intersection" award. She was also honored with a Catalyst Award from the Science Club for Girls to celebrate her trailblazing work in support of girls' engagement in STEM.

For Women's Equality Day, Johnson & Johnson featured Bhatia, one of their five female biotech superstars who want to change the future of healthcare, for her work as co-founder of Glympse Bio. The startup is commercializing low-cost urinary diagnostics, developed in Bhatia's KI laboratory and previously supported by the Koch Institute Frontier Research Program. Her work as a multimodal inventor was also profiled by Ludwig Cancer Research. Finally, Bhatia herself penned a guest post for the National Academy of Sciences for National Nanotechnology Day.

Promising Progress for Two KI Faculty Startups

Armed with powerful technologies and experienced leadership, two Cambridge-based and KI faculty-founded startups are going full steam ahead. Moderna, co-founded by David H. Koch Institute Professor Robert Langer, announced that it has begun Phase 1 clinical trials for its mRNA-based personalized cancer vaccine, mRNA-4157. The potential behind this novel vaccine comes from the company's algorithms that allow it to predict which of the mutations found in a patient's cancer cells will elicit the strongest immune response based on the unique characteristics of that patient’s immune system. Then, within two weeks, the company uses the data to create a customized vaccine that will lead to better recognition and destruction of cancer cells. In this trial, Moderna is also collaborating with Merck to determine the effects of combining their vaccine with Merck’s Anti-PD-1 immunotherapy. Earlier this fall, Moderna announced the initiation of a Phase 1 trial for mRNA-2416, the company's first immuno-oncology therapeutic clinical study.

In other immunotherapy news, Torque pulled out of stealth mode with $25 million in Series A capital from Flagship Pioneering. Torque, co-founded by KI Associate Director Darrell Irvine, is developing a platform to anchor powerful stimulatory cytokines, antibodies, and small molecules directly to immune cell therapeutics to increase their efficacy and durability in the hostile tumor microenvironment.

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