Lipo-ImmunoTech, LLC, a startup based in Charleston, South Carolina, recently received a Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant of just over $224,000 to continue to develop its novel adoptive cell therapy technology for cancer. The startup is a joint venture involving Shikhar Mehrotra, Ph.D., an immunologist, and Besim Ogretmen, Ph.D., a sphingolipid expert, both of whom are Hollings Cancer Center researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina. Lipo-ImmunoTech also executed an option agreement with the MUSC Foundation for Research Development, which gives it the rights to evaluate the technology further with an eye toward eventually licensing it for commercialization.
Adoptive cell therapy is a form of immunotherapy in which a cancer patient's T cells, immune cells that can kill cancer cells, are removed and expanded in the laboratory. The expanded T cells are then infused back into the patient. While adoptive cell therapy is a rapidly growing field and an effective strategy for controlling tumor growth, it does present some challenges.
It is very costly. But more importantly, when you isolate the T cells and expand them out, they have to multiply many times. The cells at this point are susceptible to cell death. They are also susceptible to immunosuppression in the tumor microenvironment once they are transferred back into the patient."
Shikhar Mehrotra, Ph.D., Immunologist, Hollings Cancer Center, Medical University of South Carolina
Mehrotra and Ogretmen are working to address current challenges in adoptive cell therapy by enhancing the viability of expanded T cells and improving their functionality. Their approach is novel in that it factors in the role that lipids, or the molecules that make up cell membranes, play in suppressing the immune system.
"Lipids have an important role, which is not well studied. They can prevent T cells and other immune cells from functioning properly," explained Mehrotra. "So, we thought that, with our collaboration, we could understand and address these issues to improve the immune response."
Ogretmen explained further how better understanding the role of lipids could improve anti-cancer immunotherapy as well as treatments for other diseases.
"We formed our small biotech company Lipo-ImmunoTech because mechanistic connections between lipids and immunity provide opportunities to develop novel therapeutic agents and strategies to treat various diseases with unmet clinical needs, such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and infections, including COVID-19," said Ogretmen.
Mehrotra and Ogretmen are currently investigating the applicability of their new technology to different cancer types. They already have promising data from preclinical studies in prostate cancer, melanoma and lung cancer but are expanding their efforts to other cancers as well.
They will use those data to apply for a larger STTR grant early next year. If the data continue to show promise, they hope to take the technology into clinical trial to see whether it outperforms standard immune cell therapies currently in the clinic.