George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Bioengineering doctoral student pursues new immunotherapy treatment for cancer

March 29, 2018   /   by Nanci Hellmich

Steven Roberts is putting in long hours to develop a novel approach that would help the body’s own immune system fight cancer.

Steven Roberts is working for Nitin Agrawal, an assistant professor of bioengineering, to develop a novel approach that would help the body’s own immune system fight cancer.

What Steven Roberts likes most about bioengineering research is the chase for life-saving answers to complex medical problems.

As a PhD student in Mason’s Bioengineering Department, Roberts is pursuing a potentially big medical breakthrough at the µ-SCALE Lab under the mentorship of Nitin Agrawal

Roberts is putting in long hours to develop a novel approach that would help the body’s own immune system fight cancer.

His work for Agrawal, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is at the forefront of cancer research. “There is a possibility that what we are doing could lead to a universal approach to treating cancer,” Roberts says. “Our ultimate goal is that our research will increase accessibility and large-scale implementation of immunotherapy.”

Currently, doctors treat cancer patients with variety of different approaches including radiation and chemotherapy, but often these therapies don’t work when the disease has progressed to late stages or metastasized to other organs. As an alternative treatment, scientists have shown that the body's own immune cells, called T-Lymphocytes (T-cells), have the ability to target and kill cancer cells in the same way that they reject foreign organs when transplanted.

Researchers are able to take T-cells from patients, multiply them over time to trillions of cells in a lab using a protein called IL-2, and inject them back into the patients, Roberts says.

Several trials have demonstrated that this procedure can effectively eliminate late stage melanomas and other cancers, and many of the patients stay in remission for decades, he says. “In essence, they are developing a brand new drug for each patient. It’s a type of personalized medicine. While the therapy can extend a patient’s life, it is extremely expensive and resource intensive, which limits its widespread use.”

To address the existing limitations and advance this area, Roberts is utilizing a nanotechnology approach. Using nano-sized particles, called liposomes, the research team hopes to activate and proliferate T-cells within the body. The liposomes are 1/1000th the diameter of a human hair and can be broken down easily by the body after its functional activity with no side-effects. 

The liposome-based treatment has the potential to allow researchers to control where the treatment goes, he says. Liposomes would protect the body from the high doses of therapeutics and the degradation of therapeutics within the body. This approach has the potential to eliminate the necessity of the lab-grown cells thus greatly decreasing the cost and limitations of this type of treatment.

“We’ve done work in test tubes, but not humans. There’s still much work to be done before we reach our goal,” says Roberts, who recently won a first place award for this work at the American Institute of Chemical Engineering annual meeting. “Eventually we will move on to animal models and then hopefully to human trials, which is still years off.”

Agrawal says, “If successful, this project can change the way cancers are treated today. Steven has worked hard to take this project a step closer to success. Based on his achievements, he has been accepted for a post-doctoral position at Harvard University.”

Roberts adds, "Professor Agrawal has given me the opportunity to be creative and is always pushing me to reach my goals."

To be a leader in the field, you have to constantly pursue the next step, Roberts says. “You are always chasing some goal that keeps moving further away. As soon as you get there, someone else is right behind you, so you have to keep going.

“It’s exciting to be on the forefront of cancer research, knowing that if I put in extra effort, I can be the one that changes lives."

If successful, this project can change the way cancers are treated today.

Assistant Professor of Bioengineering Nitin Agrawal

Professor Agrawal has given me the opportunity to be creative and is always pushing me to reach my goals.

Steven Roberts

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