UTA research explores how T-cells detect cancer

CPRIT-funded research aims to develop personalized immunotherapy treatment

Wednesday, Feb 22, 2023 • Herb Booth : Contact

A University of Texas at Arlington bioengineering professor is leading a state-funded project that will try to identify what T-cells are detecting in cancerous cells to better craft a personalized cancer immunotherapy.

George Alexandrakis
George Alexandrakis

George Alexandrakis received a $250,000 Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) grant titled “Ultrasensitive Nanosensor-Based Detection of Tumor Immunogenic Peptides to Enable Personalized Cancer Immunotherapy.”

“One of the challenges with cancer is that it is so variable. It changes all the time and is different in all people,” Alexandrakis said. “This research will use sensors we’ve developed to see what it is the T-cells are being attracted to when they decide to invade a tumor. The sensors are sniffing out what is there that the T-cells have noticed that activated them and made them ready to fight. This will enable us in the future to design a personalized, time-sensitive treatment.”

T-cells, which originate in the thymus, are white blood cells that are part of a person’s immune system. They help protect the body from infection and foreign particles, but can also attack cancer cells if they recognize them as foreign. A major current challenge is that cancer cells masquerade as healthy cells that belong where they are. Alexandrakis’ CPRIT-funded research will contribute to ongoing efforts focused on unmasking cancer cells and making them visible to a patient’s immune system.

This research is a continuation of the highly competitive National Institutes of Health R21 grant that Alexandrakis and Jon Weidanz, associate vice president for research and professor of kinesiology, started working on in 2020. Medical doctors in radiation oncology at UT Southwestern Medical Center are collaborating on the project.

Alexandrakis’ research project is the 13th from UT Arlington to receive CPRIT funding. He is one of 11 UTA professors to receive a CPRIT grant, and he also received one in 2012.

Michael Cho, chair of the UT Arlington Department of Bioengineering, said Alexandrakis’ project shows real promise for personalized medicine.

“This project can lay a foundation for immunotherapy that will work more specifically for an individual patient and would revolutionize cancer treatment as we know it,” Cho said.

Texans voted in 2007 to create CPRIT and invest $3 billion in the state’s fight against cancer. CPRIT is now a $6 billion, 20-year initiative—the largest state cancer research investment in the history of the United States and the second-largest cancer research and prevention program in the world. CPRIT has funded 1,819 awards for cancer research, product development and prevention since 2010. The total amount awarded thus far is nearly $3.2 billion.

CPRIT invests in the research at Texas universities and research organizations, creates and expands life science infrastructure across the state and expedites research innovation to help the potential breakthroughs in prevention and cures.