What if cancer cells could help doctors cure two of humanity’s most heartbreaking and debilitating conditions, paralysis and brain damage? Assistant Professor Chase Cornelison of the Biomedical Engineering Department has received a three-year, $400,000 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trailblazer Award to pursue his research into harnessing the proliferating power of cancer cells to treat spinal cord injuries and restore function following brain damage. See News Office release, Zephyrnet, and News Medical Life Sciences.
As Cornelison explains, “We’re looking at how the cancer cells are interacting with the neural cells and trying to identify some of the signals passed to those cells so we can reengineer those signals as implantable material to try and regrow an injured spinal cord or injured brain tissue.”
In his lab at the UMass Institute for Applied Life Sciences, Cornelison is integrating two areas of his expertise. First, as a graduate student, he developed materials from nervous tissue for spinal cord regeneration, and later, as a post-doc, he focused on brain cancer.
“I was interested in learning new ways to modulate or modify the immune response,” Cornelison says about his deliberate choice of these two areas of research. “And I realized one of the best ways was cancer. That’s why I gravitated toward cancer as a post-doc.”
Now Cornelison is dovetailing all the critical implications from all this previous research to create a pioneering new approach for treating spinal-cord injury and brain damage.
According to Cornelison, “Traumatic neural injury causes debilitating and permanent paralysis in part because chronic inflammation prevents the wound from healing. Our over-arching goal is to design biomaterial strategies for neural repair that instruct remodeling of glial cells – important neural cells capable of regulating inflammation and tissue regeneration.”
Glial cells become reactive after injury, propagating and maintaining the pro-inflammatory environment leading to chronic inflammation.
However, as Cornelison explains, “Recent studies have shown that these glial cells, namely astrocytes and microglia, can adapt phenotypes for neuroprotection and repair given the right stimuli. In our own work using a patient-designed model of brain cancer, we found introduction of glial cells to cancer cells significantly alters glial cell reactivity.”
As Cornelison says, “We hypothesize that factors produced by cancer cells may inform design of new materials to retrain reactive glial cells to suppress inflammation and promote repair after injury.”
This approach, according to Cornelison, will leverage patient-derived glioblastoma cancer cells, two high throughput biomaterial platforms, and programmable ligands for “click” chemistry to establish the therapeutic potential of using cancer to inform strategies for tissue regeneration.
“Ultimately,” says Cornelison, “understanding how brain cancer dictates behavior of neural cells, biasing them toward anti-inflammatory phenotypes, will enable development of materials to instruct remodeling of the injury environment and promote repair, with possibly widespread applications in a number of tissues and pathologies.”
Don’t assume, however, that Cornelison’s strategic use of cancer cells to cure paralysis or reverse brain damage also carries the risk of spreading cancer.
“We are not implanting a tumor into the nervous tissue so there is not any risk of promoting tumor growth,” Cornelison says. “We are isolating only specific factors that would be made by the tumor and we are taking them out of the context of cancer and basically purifying them. We’re using those purified molecules, which are no longer associated with the cancer.”
According to the NIH, its Trailblazer Award “is an opportunity for new and early stage investigators to pursue research programs of high interest to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the interface of the life sciences with engineering and the physical sciences.” (May 2021)