John Blazeck, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE), is a winner of the New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program.
Established in 2017, the New Innovator Award supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.
“I’m incredibly honored to have been selected for this New Innovator Award,” Blazeck said. “For the last four years, my lab has been working to apply the concepts of metabolic engineering and synthetic biology to enhance the ability of immune cells to kill cancerous cells.
“Cancerous cells have been shown to shut down the body’s natural immune responses against them through many routes, and recent groundbreaking work has shown that by re-activating or engineering immune cells (particularly a type of immune cells called T cells) effective anti-cancer treatments can be developed,” Blazeck explained. “In addition, altered metabolism is a hallmark of cancers, and changes that enhance cancer cell proliferation also suppress the immune system by starving, shutting down, or killing these T cells,” Blazeck said.
With support from the New Innovator Award ($1.5 million in direct funding over the course of the next five years), the Blazeck lab will seek to engineer T cells to directly compete with cancer cells for potentially low-availability nutrients, to allow T cells to directly degrade metabolic byproducts that are suppressive to immune cells, and to enable the direct activation of T cells by common aspects of the solid tumor environment.
“I’m excited for the opportunity for my lab to pursue these efforts, as they will represent one of the first attempts to impact tumoral metabolism with engineered immune cells, and the new approaches developed here may be translatable to human studies to improve the efficacy of clinically relevant ‘CAR-T’ therapies against solid tumors,” Blazeck said.
Blazeck, who joined the faculty of ChBE in January 2019, earned his PhD from the University of Texas-Austin. In 2020, he earned a prestigious Beckman Young Investigator Award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to support the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences.