A new federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has selected Emory University as the inaugural recipient of funding to support transformative breakthroughs in health research. The three-year, $24.8 million cooperative agreement from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) will support the work of Philip Santangelo, PhD, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Institute of Technology.
Many uncurable, debilitating diseases, including certain types of cancer, lupus and some viral and bacterial infections, have dysregulation of the immune system at their core. This impairs the body’s ability to control the immune response and leaves a patient vulnerable to the pathology. Immune modulation is a way to enhance the body’s immune response. The conventional methods of immune modulation — vaccines, antibodies, small molecules and cell-based therapies — face limitations in their ability to engage immunity and manufacturing complexity.
The Santangelo Lab will approach this challenge head-on by developing a novel class of mRNA-based drugs to precisely “turn on or turn off” genes in individual immune cells.
“By combining mRNA-encoded antigens with gene modulation technology, we will be able to radically enhance specific immune responses,” says Santangelo. “This technology, which operates transiently without modifying DNA, can offer a potential breakthrough in treating cancers, autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases.”
The research plan unfolds through two parallel pathways. In the first, mRNA-based drugs will directly target immune cells within the body, triggering the expression of critical target proteins and meticulously modulating gene activity for improved immune function. The second approach employs a streamlined, fully functional cell-based therapy, combining messenger RNA-expressed antigens and gene modulators outside the body to prevent and treat diseases. These pathways, adaptable to diverse disease types, will be employed independently or in tandem to elevate vaccines and standard treatments.