In this interview as part of the Early Career Innovators series, recognising the amazing translational work being done by postdocs and non-tenured researchers at University College London (UCL), Dr Mariana Diniz highlights her Cell and Gene Therapy Therapeutic Innovation Network (TIN) Pilot Data Fund awarded project, developing a cell therapy based on Natural Killer cells to treat liver cancer.
What is the title of your project and what does it involve?
My project “Engineered NK cell therapy for liver cancer” aims to develop a cell therapy based on Natural Killer cells that are genetically manipulated to have increased capacity to infiltrate and control liver tumours whilst blocking immunosuppressive mechanisms.
What unmet medical need does your project address?
My project targets liver cancer, which is the sixth most common cancer and the third cause of cancer-related death worldwide. While the incidence of major types of cancer decreased in recent decade, that of liver cancer increased and is estimated to affect >1 million individuals/year by 2025. Liver cancer is highly fatal (~700,000 deaths/year) and 70% of patients relapse within 5 years, highlighting the urgent need for new treatments.
Can you highlight any challenges you have experienced as an early career researcher going into translation?
For me, the biggest challenge has been in adjusting to translational culture and learning how it differs to traditional academic processes.
The translational research space requires a shift of perspective from our scientific research to take into consideration additional aspects including intellectual property, required developmental steps towards the clinic, feasibility of product scaling and market potential.
What motivated you to apply to the Cell & Gene Therapy TIN Pilot Data Scheme?
It is evident that novel therapeutic strategies are needed against liver cancer and my previous research has identified a potent translatable approach. Together with my group and my collaborators, I believe that we can take the development of this immunotherapeutic approach further and the TIN Pilot Data Fund provides the opportunity to conduct proof-of-concept experiments and obtain preliminary data to apply for additional funding to progress with the treatment development.
How did you find the process for the TIN Pilot Data Scheme?
It was easy to find all the information needed to apply for the TIN Pilot Data Scheme and the staff involved were very helpful and responsive. There are plenty of online resources, such as the TIN roadmaps, and ACCELERATE training workshops available for an extra support on how to tailor your project and better describe how your research idea can turn into a suitable product.
What do you hope to achieve in the 6 months duration of your project?
By the end of the project, I hope to have established an efficient protocol to engineer human NK cells, suitable to escalate for clinical testing. I expect to prove the increased functionality of genetically manipulated NK cells in fighting liver cancer using tumour cell culture and experimental models.
About Dr Mariana Diniz
Mariana Diniz is a biologist working as postdoctoral researcher at the Division of Infection and Immunity at UCL. She investigates novel treatments to boost immune responses to fight liver cancer and hepatitis B.