McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty member Steven R. Little, PhD (pictured), an assistant professor of chemical engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, received a 2008 Beckman Young Investigators award for his ongoing effort to create particles that would behave as natural cells do to carry out specific tasks. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which supports innovative research, recognized Dr. Little for developing synthetic cellular constructs that could allow for better understanding and even control of the immune system.
Little's lab currently focuses on dendritic cells, which direct the immune system's response to an invader by presenting antigens to the cells that carry out the body's attack. With the engineered particles, Little can control the signals presented to the immune system and, in turn, the body's response to a perceived malady. The particles communicate with the body in a similar way as natural cells, and Little simply tailors the presence and extent of these natural interactions, he said.
“We're using the body's own form of communication with modular templates of cells that we can control,” Little said. “We're viewing cellular interactions as information processing and scripting the messages the body uses to complete a task.”
Such control over the immune system would be particularly useful to organ transplant patients who risk having their immune system reject a new organ, Little said.
Current exploratory methods of regulating the body's immune response are similar to Little's method but employ cells from a person's blood. These cells are removed, altered, and then injected back into the body. But they are difficult to harvest in large quantities and can change to the point of losing the intended function. On the other hand, the engineered particles can be synthesized in bulk and their structure remains constant, Little said.
Little plans to extend his research beyond dendritic cells and produce a general template that can mimic any cell, he said. He began with the immune system because of its intricate communication system, he said.
“If we can create a particle that works like an immune system cell,” Little said, “there's no reason to think we can't do it for another type of cell.”
The foundation is named for renowned scientist Arnold Beckman, inventor of the pH meter and pioneer of Silicon Valley, and awards novel work with far-reaching potential. The award includes a three-year grant of $300,000.
Illustration: McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
University of Pittsburgh News from Pitt (04/30/08)
Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation