Dr. Nicola Mitwasi
Antigen-specific redirection of immune effector cells against GD2-expressing tumors
Cancer represents one of the biggest challenges nowadays as it is the second leading cause of death worldwide. Therefore, creating new therapeutic strategies became an urgent need. Several promising approaches were developed in the last few decades, which depend on the activation of the immune system to attack and destroy cancer specifically. One of the most successful strategies to do so depends on the engineering of immune cells with special receptors called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These receptors allow the immune cells to recognize specific antigens on cancerous cells, and destroy them. This approach showed a lot of success, which granted the CAR technology approval by the FDA and the European commission for the treatment of certain blood malignancies. However, treatment with CAR T cells can lead to life-threatening side effects and toxicities in some cases. Therefore, it became necessary to develop new methods to control these engineered immune cells. For that reason, a novel CAR system called Universal CAR (UniCAR) was developed in the group of Prof. Dr. Michael Bachmann-HZDR, which allows the on/off switch of the engineered immune cells. The UniCAR system is composed of two elements, the first is UniCAR-engineered immune cells, and the second is special molecules called target modules. This system can only work to attack cancer if both elements are administrated into patients. Therefore, in case of side effects, the target modules can be discontinued, and then the UniCAR immune cells can be stopped to prevent any further complication.
My thesis work including applying the UniCAR system on specific immune cell populations including T cells and NK cells, and to develop novel therapeutic molecules (target modules) to allow the targeting of cancers expressing the glycolipid GD2. GD2 is overexpressed on many childhood as well as adulthood cancers like neuroblastoma and melanoma, which makes it a very interesting target for tumor therapy.
Botschaft für den DRESDEN EXCELLENCE AWARD:
It is great pleasure and honor for me to apply for the Dresden excellence award. I believe that the effort and research I performed during my PhD studies contribute and flow with the bigger vision of Dresden as a cultural and scientific hub. My contribution was mainly by conducting research of high scientific and translational values as well as the continuous efforts to communicate these values to the scientific community and the public.
Almost 5 years ago, I have left my homeland and settled in Dresden to pursue my studies and follow my dreams. I choose Dresden because it provides a strong infrastructure and fertile ground for scientific collaboration between the different institutes and facilities. In 2014, I joined the Regenerative Biology and Medicine Master program, and after one year only, and due to my excellent performance I was apple to join the PhD program directly without finishing the master degree (Fast track PhD).
The focus of my thesis work was on the development of various novel therapeutic molecules targeting cancer through redirection of engineered immune cells named UniCARs, which were developed in Prof. Bachmann group, HZDR. The therapeutic molecules were mainly designed for targeting several childhood and adulthood tumors like neuroblastoma, Ewing’s sarcoma and melanoma, which can be very challenging to treat with conventional therapies. The results of my research were collected in two scientific manuscripts. One was already published in 2017, and the second is going to be submitted soon to an international Journal. Our good quality research has opened many opportunities for collaborations for our group and institute in Dresden with other groups and institutes in Frankfurt, Munich, Halle and internationally like Hungary, where we shared ideas, materials and experiences. All these networks have strengthened our research in general and promotes for the science and research in the city of Dresden. I am also convinced that the international scientists’ community allows the opening on new cultural and scientific experiences.
Nächste Ziele und Vorhaben:
I would summarize my future aims and goals in five main directions.