URMC & RIT faculty awarded patent for gene transfer technology that could transform cancer therapies

Dec. 13, 2021
The carbon nanotube device could streamline some cancer therapies like CAR T-cell therapy.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience and Rochester Institute of Technology have received a U.S. patent for technology designed to accelerate development of cell therapies for cancer and other bio-therapies. The technique provides a less toxic alternative to standard gene transfer techniques by using an array of carbon nanotubes to deliver DNA into primary neurons, immune cells, and stem cells.

“Our goal is to provide a technology that can lower the cost and increase speed and the range of cell types that can be adapted for therapeutic use,” said Ian Dickerson, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuroscience. “Many new cell-based therapies depend on changing the gene expression of primary cells. These approaches range from stem cells for production of patient-specific repair tissues, to CAR T-cells used for focused cancer therapy.” 

Dickerson and Michael Schrlau, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, were recently awarded a patent for this technology. It delivers biomolecules into cells through carbon nanotube arrays. Their “honeycomb” of nanotubes device was first described in a 2016 study published in the journal Small.

A scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a macrophage cell sitting on top of the bed of carbon nanotubes.
A scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a macrophage cell sitting on top of the bed of carbon nanotubes.

The carbon nanotubes aim to be an alternative to conventional gene transfer methods that have a number of limitations including expensive equipment, low efficiency, and results in high toxicity that damages the cells. These methods limit the types of experiments that can be done and many cells – like stem cells, primary cells, and immune T-cells. With Dickerson’s and Schrlau’s device cells are able to grow on the carbon nanotube, genes are then transferred through the tubes and taken up by the cells through endocytosis. It has been successful at culturing a number of cell types, including immune cells, stem cells, and neurons, all are typically difficult to grow and keep alive.

The initial research that lead to this device was supported in part by a $50-thousand Schmitt Program in Integrative Neuroscience pilot award from the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience. It funded Dickerson’s project entitled High Efficiency Injection of Biomolecules into Uticle Cells by Carbon Nanotube Arrays. “This funding enabled us to begin manufacturing these carbon nanotube devices, and test the function on cell lines, which provided preliminary data that proved the concept of carbon nanotube-mediated gene transfer would work,” said Dickerson.

The researchers are now collaborating with investigators at Wilmot Cancer Institute to further explore using this device for cancer therapies like CAR T-cells. "Currently CART-cells are manufactured using a viral vector to accomplish gene transfer,” said Patrick Reagan, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine at the Wilmot Cancer Institute. “Gene transfer via carbon nanotubules represents a novel method of gene transfer that could make the manufacturing process more efficient. This is important given that many of the patients treated with CAR T-cell therapy for lymphoma and leukemia have aggressive disease and the time delays associated with CAR T-cell manufacturing can lead to adverse outcomes."