Wellcome Leap Grant Funds Work to Create Human Immune Responses

Ankur Singh in his lab

April 5, 2021 | By Jerry Grillo

Georgia Tech-Emory  team receives multi-year funding in $50 million international effort targeting human immunology

A team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, led by bioengineer Ankur Singh, has been awarded a multi-million-dollar, multi-year award from Wellcome Leap as part of the nonprofit’s international $50 million Human Organs, Physiology, and Engineering (HOPE) program.

“This is a game-changer opportunity, where a unique class of engineers from interdisciplinary backgrounds challenge the status quo as champions of innovation,” said Singh. “We each have a specific area of expertise, and without this kind of cohesive collaboration, it would be difficult to achieve our big picture goals.”

Singh is an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) and the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. He heads up a multidisciplinary investigative team that includes Andrés García, executive director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech; Krishnendu Roy, director of the NSF Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies; Ahmet Coskun, assistant professor in BME; and Jeremy Boss, chair of Emory’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

For many life-threatening infectious diseases, like tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria, effective vaccinations are still lacking, noted Singh, a Woodruff Faculty Fellow. “There are numerous challenges in understanding disease transmission, pathology and developing new vaccines, including a limited understanding of immune correlates of protection, identification of viable vaccine candidates, and off-target effects that must be evaluated in staged clinical trials.”

So his research team aims to develop multi-organ platforms that recreate human immunological responses observed in vaccination studies.

“I’m excited about this highly innovative project involving a phenomenal research team and advanced technologies,” García said. “The engineering of complex in vitro microfluidic tissue-on-a-chip models that faithfully recapitulate functions of lymphoid tissues will have transformative impact in the field in generating new knowledge and advancing therapies.”

Wellcome Leap was established to build bold, unconventional programs and fund them at scale – programs that aim to deliver breakthroughs in human health over 5 to 10 years and demonstrate seemingly impossible results on seemingly impossible timelines. 

Leap is a U.S.-based nonprofit founded by the Wellcome Trust with an initial $300 million investment and modeled on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The $50M HOPE program supports efforts to bioengineer human tissues, organoids, organs, and platforms that can be used to accelerate and scale new treatments for complex human health challenges.

Human Organs, Physiology, and Engineering (HOPE) will focus on two goals: creating a multi-organ platform that recreates human immunological responses with sufficient fidelity to double the predictive value of a preclinical trial with respect to the efficacy, toxicity, and immunogenicity of therapeutic interventions targeting cancer and autoimmune and infectious diseases; and demonstrating the advances needed to restore organ function using cultivated organs or biological/synthetic hybrid systems that double the five-year survival rate of patients on replacement therapy or awaiting organ transplantation. 

“When our immune system enounters a new virus, it has a complex program in place to create highly selective, long-lived plasma cells that secrete antibodies,” Singh noted. “The technology developed through this project would enable a better understanding of those processes and potentially lead to groundbreaking new therapies.”

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