New Chemical Engineering Professor Ashish Kulkarni was recently included among the so-called “Talented 12”, an international “dream team” of rising all-stars in chemistry, as chosen by Chemical & Engineering News. Dr. Kulkarni’s baseball-card-style photo on the lively Talented 12 webpage nicknamed him the “Cancer Crusher.” He comes to UMass Amherst after serving as an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Kulkarni’s research efforts have been focused on the development of pioneering, structure-activity, relationship-inspired nanomedicine for cancer therapy. See Kulkarni’s Talented 12 profile
“Disease develops in our body if there is an imbalance in the immune system,” Kulkarni said in his Chemical & Engineering News profile. “I’m developing dual-function nanoparticles that can allow us not only to create a balance in the immune system but also to monitor whether the drug is working in real time.”
As Chemical & Engineering News explained its Talented 12: “This team of up-and-comers has big ideas for using chemistry to solve global problems. Welcome to the third annual Talented 12 issue. It took us months of scouring the globe to collect all 12 of the rising stars in chemistry featured here.”
Chemical & Engineering News added that “The dream team we've assembled is tackling some of the toughest scientific challenges facing the world today. These young scientists are battling the opioid epidemic, inventing new medicines and better ways to make them, and harnessing sunlight to make fuel and other useful chemicals. We're certain these 12 will be scientific MVPs someday. You should collect their autographs now.”
Kulkarni certainly fits in with this group of emerging research luminaries. The 36-year-old academic, who completed his undergraduate work at the Institute of Chemical Technology in India before earning his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati, grew up loving cricket. Now he has developed into what cricketers call an “all-rounder” who is expert at various chemical engineering skills and aesthetics.
“One of the things Ashish Kulkarni loves about organic chemistry is the possibility of using his imagination to make beautiful molecules,” said Chemical & Engineering News writer Celia Henry Arnaud. “He puts that creativity to work designing new therapies for cancer, an area that’s important to him because he’s lost close family members to the disease.”
According to Arnaud’s Chemical & Engineering News profile of Kulkarni, as a postdoc at Harvard, he designed nanoparticles that could act as cancer immunotherapies; meaning drugs that prompt the immune system to find and attack cancer cells. But, although cancer immunotherapies known as “checkpoint inhibitors” dissipate tumors in many people with cancer, they don’t work for all. Researchers have been searching to find a good diagnostic or biomarker to predict and track people’s responses to the treatments.
Arnaud wrote that Kulkarni’s nanoparticle therapies could help address that quandary by simultaneously activating the immune system and “lighting up” if the treatment is working. Kulkarni’s dual-action nanoparticles contain a drug and a reporter that activates only when it has been cleaved by an enzyme involved in cancer-cell death, a signal that the therapy is working.
Chemical & Engineering News explained that one such nanoparticle is made of a “polymeric backbone attached to a known checkpoint inhibitor and to a reporter molecule that’s released by an enzyme involved in the cell-death pathway.” With such a self-reporting treatment, doctors can quickly figure out whether or not patients are responding properly to the therapy.
The next phase of Kulkarni’s career is being launched right now, as he sets up shop at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His lab here will focus on further developing what he calls the “immunotheranostic” nanoparticles he has been researching. Then he will begin translating them to clinical use.
“We are an interdisciplinary research group working at the interface of engineering and immunology to address challenges in clinics,” as Kulkarni said on his group’s website. “Our mission is to treat diseases and improve human health by engineering new approaches for both fundamental understanding of the disease progression and efficient therapeutic modulation of the immune system.”
Kulkarni can include his addition to the Talented 12 super team on his list of distinguished awards. Among other honors, he is the recipient of the Hearst Foundation Young Investigator Award, Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center Career Development Award, American Association of Cancer Research Scholar-in-training Award, American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Young Scientist Award, and the Melanoma Research Alliance Young Investigator Award. (September 2017)