Assistant Professor Ashish Kulkarni of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department has been attracting media attention for his four-year, $792,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to advance his interdisciplinary lab’s promising cancer immunotherapy research. The new preclinical research focuses on urothelial bladder cancer, which has a high recurrence rate and has seen limited treatment breakthroughs in recent decades. See media coverage: Medicine News Line, News Medical Life Sciences, News Office release. See College of Engineering article: Kulkarni Receives American Cancer Society Grant Aimed at Developing Novel Bladder Cancer Immunotherapy.
Current immunotherapy drugs for bladder cancer are effective only for a subset of patients, Kulkarni explains, because of the way the cancer suppresses the immune system. “Despite the standard of care, a lot of patients relapse,” he says. His new immunotherapy strategy addresses that challenge and has the potential to revolutionize bladder cancer treatment, as Kulkarni explains.
Cancer has a way of turning off the body’s immune system response so that macrophage cells that normally would attack the disease are not only rendered powerless but recruited to help the malignant tumor grow. “We want to reverse that,” Kulkarni says.
Kulkarni’s research team designs so-called self-assembled supramolecular nanoparticles, which are capable of simultaneously targeting the immune suppressor cells in tumors and reactivating the immune cells capable of eating the tumor. These supramolecules are designed from lipids, some of the body’s own building blocks, and have been found to be nontoxic, versatile, and efficient in the delivery of drugs and other biomedical materials.
“This research brings together the latest advances in cancer immunotherapy with novel biomaterials to engineer a nanotherapeutic platform to activate innate and adaptive immunity,” Kulkarni says. “This novel combination therapy increases the impact and could result in a dramatic increase in survival in bladder cancer while minimizing the side effects of the therapy.”
Kulkarni directs the ImmunoEngineering Research Group, an interdisciplinary team working at the interface of engineering and immunology to address challenges in clinics. The group’s 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.
In addition to his ChE position, Kulkarni is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and a faculty member in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences and in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program.
Kulkarni is a recipient of the Hearst Foundation Young Investigator Award, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center Career Development Award, the American Association of Cancer Research Scholar-in-training Award, an American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Young Scientist Award, the Cancer Research Institute Technology Impact Award, and a Melanoma Research Alliance Young Investigator Award.
He was recently selected as a NextGen Star in Cancer Research by the American Association for Cancer Research. (August 2019)