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Professor Michael Dustin and an international team of collaborators have been awarded a €10M grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to develop a new biotechnology around supramolecular attack particles (SMAPs) engineered to kill cancer cells.

Collage of Michael Dustin and Stefan Balint

Pioneering work into basic immunological mechanisms, led by Dr. Stefan Balint and Professor Michael Dustin at the Kennedy Institute, seeded the €10M Synergy grant from the ERC.  The project entitled Analysis of the T cell’s tactical arsenal for cancer killing (ATTACK) will be carried out by Professors Jens Rettig (U. Saarland), Cosima Baldari (U. Siena), M. Dustin (U. Oxford) and Salvatore Valitutti (U. Toulouse), with each contributing equally.

In recent years, the success of immunotherapies for cancer has drawn the attention of researchers and global industry to cytotoxic T cells, which protect the body by killing infected and cancerous cells. However, there are still many limitations to current immunotherapy approaches, including high costs, dependence on the integrity of the patient immune system, and cancer cell resistance to treatment. The ERC-funded project ATTACK will develop a new biotechnology inspired by the cytotoxic machinery of T cells toward the goal of efficient and accessible cancer treatment.

“Our discovery of SMAPs as new way for T cells to attack infected or cancerous cells was made with support from an ERC Advanced Grant to our lab. The challenges posed by the new biology of SMAPs were too great for any individual lab so we are excited to now join with a team of scientists from across Europe to learn the secrets of SMAPs, which appear to be molecular bombs, and to guide engineered SMAPs to better kill cancer cells,” said Professor M. Dustin, Director of Research at the Kennedy Institute. 

The four scientists will combine their diverse expertise and unique preliminary findings to form a “super-lab” to make more potent T cells for cellular therapies, SMAP based biologic therapies and synthetic SMAPs.

The synergy team will be working together through four “work-packages”. Each researcher will lead one work package and at the same time support the other ones through free flow of information and joint experiments, providing a holistic view of how SMAPs can contribute to a long and healthy life. The four groups will investigate how SMAPs are made (Baldari), how they are released (Rettig), how they work (M. Dustin) and how cancer cells respond (Valitutti).

This new molecularly defined cytotoxic pathway may be able to address the current limitations of cancer immunotherapies and have a transformative global health impact. The research team envisage other successful applications beyond killing pathogenic cells, for example, as building blocks in regenerative medicine.

The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Synergy grants provide small teams of scientists with resources to work together on ambitious, cutting-edge problems that they could not solve individually. 

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