Assistant Professor Ashish Kulkarni of the Chemical Engineering Department has been selected as one of 10 NextGen Stars by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). As a NextGen Star, Kulkarni will present his groundbreaking research project – titled Immunotheranostic probes for monitoring cancer immunotherapy response – at the “Advances in Diagnostics and Therapeutics” session on Molecular Imaging for Cancer Immunotherapy, scheduled for April 2 at the AARC Annual Conference in Atlanta.
This session will focus on the novel tools and technologies that enable real-time assessment of PK/PD of immune checkpoint therapeutics at the tumor that span preclinical and clinical studies.
“The NextGen Stars program provides an exciting opportunity to increase the visibility of early career scientists at the AACR Annual Meeting and to support the professional development and advancement of those selected as NextGen Stars,” the AACR says.
As Kulkarni explains his research project for the AARC presentation: “We engineered a ‘self-reporting immunotheranostic’ that can not only deliver an immune checkpoint inhibitor to the tumor, thereby sparing normal tissue, but also report back on its efficacy in real time.”
Kulkarni says that immunotherapy, such as immune checkpoint inhibitor antibodies, has revolutionized the treatments for hard-to-treat cancers, including metastatic melanoma.
However, the overall response is observed only in a subset of patients. “Also,” as Kulkarni says, “immunotherapy induces delayed onset of responses and novel patterns of the anti-tumor response which make it challenging to identify patient responders and non-responders early on, often leading to undertreatment or overtreatment.”
To address these challenges, Kulkarni’s team engineered a prototype self-reporting nanotheranostic, which first delivers an immune checkpoint inhibitor and the pathophysiological response of the tumor to the immunotherapy, then activates the imaging component of the nanotheranostic, which can be imaged in real-time.
As Kulkarni says, “This platform technology, [which] improves immunotherapy efficacy and monitors the response early on, could potentially accurately assess the effectiveness of the drug regimen, assess disease progression, and identify recurrence.”
Kulkarni received his B. Tech. from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai, India, in 2003. For three years, he worked as a process engineer at a chemical company in Mumbai, where he was part of a team that scaled up a product from lab scale to a production unit. He then obtained his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati working on the design and development of biologically inspired and chemically defined synthetic glycans for diagnostic and therapeutic applications. After earning his Ph.D., he joined Harvard Medical School and MIT as a postdoctoral fellow. He was promoted to an independent faculty position in 2015, when he began to work on the development of tools and platforms for immunotherapy applications.
Currently, at UMass Amherst, Kulkarni is part of an interdisciplinary research group working to address challenges in clinics. As he says about his research team, “Our group works at the interface of engineering and immunobiology to develop innovative technologies for achieving the precise level of immune activation to treat diseases and improve human health.” (March 2019)