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Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy Scientist Kole Roybal of UCSF Wins Inaugural Sartorius & Science Prize for Regenerative Medicine & Cell Therapy

Award given for groundbreaking research that combines synthetic biology and T-cell engineering to create more customizable treatments for patients

SAN FRANCISCO – Kole Roybal, Ph.D., a Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy investigator at the University of California, San Francisco, has been awarded the first ever Sartorius & Science Prize for Regenerative Medicine & Cell Therapy.

Roybal, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF, won the inaugural award for his groundbreaking development of Synthetic Notch (synNotch) receptors. While this work melded synthetic biology with immunotherapy, an increasingly important pillar of treatment in oncology, his research has potential to make a much wider impact in biology and medicine.

“It’s an honor, and exciting on many levels,” said Roybal of the award. “I’m still amazed at the widespread interest in the work. We have received countless requests to collaborate on projects that range from fundamental biology research to applied research for the treatment of cancer, autoimmunity and regenerative medicine. It’s an incredible experience to have your work widely adopted and used across many fields of research. The award reflects this, which I am very proud of.”

The honor comes with a $25,000 cash prize. Roybal’s award-winning essay, “Refining Cell Therapy,” will be published in the March 9 issue of the journal Science.

“Kole’s work is designed to expand what’s possible in cell therapy and builds on his previous first-in-class studies,” said Fred Ramsdell, Ph.D., vice president of research at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. “That is one reason why the Parker Institute has chosen to support his research. This is just the beginning, and we’re all very excited to see what comes next.”

Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, or CAR-T therapy, is one of the most promising new immunotherapy treatments for cancer. The first such cell therapies were approved for the first time in August 2017 to treat blood cancers. In essence, T-cells from a patient are extracted and engineered to identify and kill a patient’s cancer cells. Those pumped-up T-cells are then increased in number and infused back into the patient.

However, CAR-T can cause side effects such as inflammation, or in some cases, harm normal tissue. Solid tumors, which create a hostile environment for T-cells, remain a challenge as well.

Roybal, along with former colleague Leonardo Morsut, Ph.D., sought to engineer a solution to these challenges by creating a new class of synthetic T-cell receptors while the two were postdoctoral researchers in the lab of Wendell Lim, Ph.D., at UCSF. In seminal papers on the synNotch system, they demonstrated that T-cells could be engineered to recognize distinctive signals in their environment and react in a specific way.

When sensing a certain signal, for example, the cells could turn on a gene for a disease-fighting antibody, or turn off a gene to prevent a T-cell from wearing out when fighting a solid tumor. SynNotch cells could also deliver drugs directly to tumors, sidestepping the toxicity associated with systemic drug delivery.

Because the cells can also be programmed to recognize multiple targets on a cancer cell, it means treatment can be better aimed at tumors only, helping cut down on cross-reaction with normal tissue and unwanted side effects.

This framework for engineering cells that could be programmed to sense things in the environment and act in a specific way has opened up possibilities across basic science and medicine, according to the award committee.

“In principle, this synthetic switch could respond to cancer and autoimmune conditions, and possibly disorders of nerve and muscle cells,” said Science biomedicine editor Priscilla Kelly, Ph.D., in a statement. “Roybal’s work shows how cutting-edge science can deliver therapeutic opportunities for currently intractable diseases.”

Roybal will receive his award in Germany on March 20.

Learn more about the prize on the Science website.

About the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy

The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy brings together the best scientists, clinicians and industry partners to build a smarter and more coordinated cancer immunotherapy research effort.

The Parker Institute is an unprecedented collaboration between the country’s leading immunologists and cancer centers. The program started by providing institutional support to six academic centers, including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of California, San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The institute also provides programmatic support for top immunotherapy investigators, including a group of researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Robert Schreiber, Ph.D., of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Nina Bhardwaj, M.D., Ph.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Phil Greenberg, M.D., of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The Parker Institute network also includes more than 40 industry and nonprofit partners, more than 60 labs and more than 300 of the nation’s top researchers focused on treating the deadliest cancers.

The goal is to accelerate the development of breakthrough immune therapies capable of turning most cancers into curable diseases. The institute was created through a $250 million grant from The Parker Foundation.

Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, 628-899-7604