Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog



Medical Technology to Fight Cancer and COVID-19

UPDATED: December 16, 2020

The rapid development of scientific and medical technologies has provided a multitude of tools for doctors and researchers to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. While many were not initially intended for virology or epidemiology, many scientists have been able adapt and improve their technologies for the current crisis.

Some of them have been kick-started with seed funding from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). The CRI Technology Impact Award helps address the gap between technology development and clinical application of cancer immunotherapies—and today, is helping scientists and clinicians better understand and treat COVID-19.

CRI Technology Impact Award Recipient Andrew Oberst, PhD, at the University of Washington is exploring a form of programmed cell death—known as necroptosis—that can cause inflammation and potentially trigger responses by the immune system. While he’s shown that necroptotic cancer cell death can promote beneficial immune responses against tumors, his team is now determining whether SARS-CoV-2 infection might induce necroptosis and overactive immune responses that harm patients with COVID-19. 

Muneesh Tewari, MD, PhD, a CRI Technology Impact Award recipient at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is adapting his work in CAR T cell therapy. While his CRI-funded research project to measure immune-related cytokines in the blood of CAR T cell therapy patients is still in development, his collaborator Dr. Katsuo Kurabayashi seeks to use the platform in critically ill COVID-19 patients. Their forthcoming paper with Dr. Sung Won Choi shares early data demonstrating potential for near-real-time, bedside immune status monitoring. Dr. Kurabayashi and team have also shown the potential of SCD therapy to effectively treat intensive-care patients. Additionally, a wearable sensors study (temperature, heart rate) originally for CAR T cell therapy patients is shifting to evaluating health care providers given their potential risk of exposure to the virus. His team is also applying expertise in digital polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to COVID-related questions, using patient samples from the clinical lab at the university.

CRI-funded research originally intended to help cancer patients respond to immunotherapy is also helping to accelerate development of COVID-19 treatments. For example, ChIRP-MS, a technology developed as part of a CRI Technology Impact Award to Ansuman Satpathy, MD, PhD, allows the team to isolate viral RNA (or tumor RNA) and determine with which host proteins they are interacting. Dr. Satpathy thinks this will provide a new set of targets to understand viral pathogenicity and nominate targets for treatment (paper forthcoming). 

Moreover, as a Technology Impact Award recipient at New York City’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Brian Brown, PhD, developed a genome analysis technology to identify new therapeutic targets in cancer patients that is now being used to map genetic drivers of immune responses in SARS-CoV-2-infected patients.

Dr. Brown explained in an interview, “The technologies we are developing with CRI’s support are precisely the tools we need to find the genes that are involved in COVID-19 disease. We are continuing to develop new variants of the technology, including a version that can be resolved with tissue-level spatial resolution, which will help us better understand how SARS-CoV-2 spreads and affects the local immune response within the infected tissue.”

In another part of New York City, CRI Technology Impact Award recipient Adam Mor, MD, PhD, of Columbia University Medical Center was re-assigned to care for COVID-19 patients in the hospital. He still draws connections to his research (briefly on hold), noting that T cell exhaustion in the context of cancer is very similar to viral diseases. (Dr. Mor is developing a novel technology named PMSPA—which stands for Phosphoproteomic Mass Spectrometry combined with in-silico Prediction Algorithm—to identify checkpoints that regulate the functions of the immune system.)

Thank you to these dynamic scientists and technologists for your work fighting COVID-19.

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