Bioengineering Breakthroughs and the Cancer Moonshot

Research!America

Cancer researchers hope support for the Cancer Moonshot will speed the pace of discovery of life-saving technologies. Speakers at a Capitol Hill briefing held Thursday, September 15, agreed that the moonshot could heighten awareness of the importance of sustained federal funding for cancer research. The briefing, hosted by the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, focused on advances in cancer research that hope to someday replace current treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.

As a result of current therapies, cancer has on average seen a decline in incidence and mortality. However, this is not true of all cancers, said Dr. Krishna Kandarpa, director of research sciences and strategic directions at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. For example, liver and pancreatic cancer remain remarkably difficult to treat, he noted. In addition, current treatments, while effective for many people, are draining and come with a host of undesirable side effects. There is much more work to be done in treating and curing cancer.

Cancer research has recently been thrown into the spotlight by Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot initiative, which aims to increase the speed of research, make therapies more widely available and improve current early detection methods. Cancer research is a burgeoning field, with exciting new developments and ideas being uncovered often.

Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, leads a laboratory that aims to make technology more accessible to reduce disparities in cancer health care. Her research facilities at Duke University contain cutting-edge technologies, including a colposcope, a powerful microscope that is used to examine the cervix for signs of cancer. This colposcope, Dr. Ramanujam said, reaches her height and weighs about 150 pounds. The technology, while incredible, is impractical and not widely available. “Should that be a barrier to care?” she asked.

Her lab has addressed this issue by designing a colposcope that is about the size of a handheld vacuum cleaner and equipped with powerful microscopy abilities and strong LED lights. Because it is so portable, it can be brought to rural and low-income communities without compromising quality of care.

Dr. David Mooney, professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, studies immunotherapy, which aims to use the body’s own immune system to attack tumor cells. Not only would this reduce the need for chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Mooney explained, but immunotherapy provides benefits that no other current treatment can, like the ability to travel through the whole body as well as a powerful memory for past disruptions, which could prevent relapse. His team has developed a small plastic disk that they hope will activate and teach immune cells how to fight off cancer cells. The disk, which was conceived in 2002, is now being used in clinical trials.  This is why it is so important, Dr. Mooney said, to have long-term, steady investment in the National Institutes of Health. He noted thousands of great ideas are not funded. In difficult times, people support “sure things,” said Dr. Mooney. There is a lack of support for ideas that may seem “high-risk” but could turn out to be “high reward.” 

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