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The People’s Picks for Best Posts

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It’s 2021—Happy New Year! Time sure flies in the blogosphere. It seems like just yesterday that I started the NIH Director’s Blog to highlight recent advances in biology and medicine, many supported by NIH. Yet it turns out that more than eight years have passed since this blog got rolling and we are fast approaching my 1,000th post!

I’m pleased that millions of you have clicked on these posts to check out some very cool science and learn more about NIH and its mission. Thanks to the wonders of social media software, we’ve been able to tally up those views to determine each year’s most-popular post. So, I thought it would be fun to ring in the New Year by looking back at a few of your favorites, sort of a geeky version of a top 10 countdown or the People’s Choice Awards. It was interesting to see what topics generated the greatest interest. Spoiler alert: diet and exercise seemed to matter a lot! So, without further ado, I present the winners:

2013: Fighting Obesity: New Hopes from Brown Fat. Brown fat, one of several types of fat made by our bodies, was long thought to produce body heat rather than store energy. But Shingo Kajimura and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, showed in a study published in the journal Nature, that brown fat does more than that. They discovered a gene that acts as a molecular switch to produce brown fat, then linked mutations in this gene to obesity in humans.

What was also nice about this blog post is that it appeared just after Kajimura had started his own lab. In fact, this was one of the lab’s first publications. One of my goals when starting the blog was to feature young researchers, and this work certainly deserved the attention it got from blog readers. Since highlighting this work, research on brown fat has continued to progress, with new evidence in humans suggesting that brown fat is an effective target to improve glucose homeostasis.

2014: In Memory of Sam Berns. I wrote this blog post as a tribute to someone who will always be very near and dear to me. Sam Berns was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, one of the rarest of rare diseases. After receiving the sad news that this brave young man had passed away, I wrote: “Sam may have only lived 17 years, but in his short life he taught the rest of us a lot about how to live.”

Affecting approximately 400 people worldwide, progeria causes premature aging. Without treatment, children with progeria, who have completely normal intellectual development, die of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, on average in their early teens.

From interactions with Sam and his parents in the early 2000s, I started to study progeria in my NIH lab, eventually identifying the gene responsible for the disorder. My group and others have learned a lot since then. So, it was heartening last November when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment for progeria. It’s an oral medication called Zokinvy (lonafarnib) that helps prevent the buildup of defective protein that has deadly consequences. In clinical trials, the drug increased the average survival time of those with progeria by more than two years. It’s a good beginning, but we have much more work to do in the memory of Sam and to help others with progeria. Watch for more about new developments in applying gene editing to progeria in the next few days.

2015: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol. Readers absolutely loved this post. When the American Society of Cell Biology held its first annual video competition, called CellDance, my blog featured some of the winners. Among them was this captivating video from Alex Ritter, then working with cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The video stars a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells. Here, these T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death.

These cytotoxic T cells are critical players in cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. Cancer immunotherapy remains a promising area of research that continues to progress, with a lot of attention now being focused on developing immunotherapies for common, solid tumors like breast cancer. Ritter is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Ira Mellman, Genentech, South San Francisco. His focus has shifted to how cancer cells protect themselves from T cells. And video buffs—get this—Ritter says he’s now created even cooler videos that than the one in this post.

2016: Exercise Releases Brain-Healthy Protein. The research literature is pretty clear: exercise is good for the brain. In this very popular post, researchers led by Hyo Youl Moon and Henriette van Praag of NIH’s National Institute on Aging identified a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells to help explore the muscle-brain connection. In a study in Cell Metabolism, Moon and his team showed that this protein called cathepsin B makes its way into the brain and after a good workout influences the development of new neural connections. This post is also memorable to me for the photo collage that accompanied the original post. Why? If you look closely at the bottom right, you’ll see me exercising—part of my regular morning routine!

2017: Muscle Enzyme Explains Weight Gain in Middle Age. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge for many of us. While several risk factors for weight gain, such as counting calories, are within our control, there’s a major one that isn’t: age. Jay Chung, a researcher with NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and his team discovered that the normal aging process causes levels of an enzyme called DNA-PK to rise in animals as they approach middle age. While the enzyme is known for its role in DNA repair, their studies showed it also slows down metabolism, making it more difficult to burn fat.

Since publishing this paper in Cell Metabolism, Chung has been busy trying to understand how aging increases the activity of DNA-PK and its ability to suppress renewal of the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. Without renewal of damaged mitochondria, excess oxidants accumulate in cells that then activate DNA-PK, which contributed to the damage in the first place. Chung calls it a “vicious cycle” of aging and one that we’ll be learning more about in the future.

2018: Has an Alternative to Table Sugar Contributed to the C. Diff. Epidemic? This impressive bit of microbial detective work had blog readers clicking and commenting for several weeks. So, it’s no surprise that it was the runaway People’s Choice of 2018.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a common bacterium that lives harmlessly in the gut of most people. But taking antibiotics can upset the normal balance of healthy gut microbes, allowing C. diff. to multiply and produce toxins that cause inflammation and diarrhea.

In the 2000s, C. diff. infections became far more serious and common in American hospitals, and Robert Britton, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wanted to know why. He and his team discovered that two subtypes of C. diff have adapted to feed on the sugar trehalose, which was approved as a food additive in the United States during the early 2000s. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, suggested that hospitals and nursing homes battling C. diff. outbreaks may want to take a closer look at the effect of trehalose in the diet of their patients.

2019: Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements. This post that was another one that sparked a firestorm of comments from readers. A team of NIH-supported researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, found that people who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to amounts that are available from food consumption. The researchers based their conclusion on an analysis of the well-known National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 survey data. The team, which reported its data in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess.

2020: Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19. Typically, my blog focuses on research involving many different diseases. That changed in 2020 due to the emergence of a formidable public health challenge: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since last March, the blog has featured 85 posts on COVID-19, covering all aspects of the research response and attracting more visitors than ever. And which post got the most views? It was one that highlighted a study, published last June in the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested the clues to people’s variable responses to COVID-19 may be found in our genes and our blood types.

The researchers found that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death. The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system.

In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.

That’s it for the blog’s year-by-year Top Hits. But wait! I’d also like to give shout outs to the People’s Choice winners in two other important categories—history and cool science images.

Top History Post: HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story. Published in August 2013, this post remains one of the blog’s greatest hits with readers. The post highlights science’s use of cancer cells taken in the 1950s from a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells had an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. The “new chapter” featured in this post is an agreement with the Lacks family that gives researchers access to the HeLa genome data, while still protecting the family’s privacy and recognizing their enormous contribution to medical research. And the acknowledgments rightfully keep coming from those who know this remarkable story, which has been chronicled in both book and film. Recently, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to honor her extraordinary life and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups.

Top Snapshots of Life: A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells. My blog posts come in several categories. One that you may have noticed is “Snapshots of Life,” which provides a showcase for cool images that appear in scientific journals and often dominate Science as Art contests. My blog has published dozens of these eye-catching images, representing a broad spectrum of the biomedical sciences. But the blog People’s Choice goes to a very recent addition that reveals exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when they are infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This vivid image, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This image squeezed in just ahead of another highly popular post from Steve Ramirez, Boston University, in 2019 that showed “What a Memory Looks Like.”

As we look ahead to 2021, I want to thank each of my blog’s readers for your views and comments over the last eight years. I love to hear from you, so keep on clicking! I’m confident that 2021 will generate a lot more amazing and bloggable science, including even more progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic that made our past year so very challenging.


Insulin-Producing Organoids Offer Hope for Treating Type 1 Diabetes

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Insulin-producing organoid
Caption: Human islet-like organoids express insulin (green). Credit: Salk Institute

For the 1 to 3 million Americans with type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas that control the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. As a result, these individuals must monitor their blood glucose often and take replacement doses of insulin to keep it under control. Such constant attention, combined with a strict diet to control sugar intake, is challenging—especially for children.

For some people with type 1 diabetes, there is another option. They can be treated—maybe even cured—with a pancreatic islet cell transplant from an organ donor. These transplanted islet cells, which harbor the needed beta cells, can increase insulin production. But there’s a big catch: there aren’t nearly enough organs to go around, and people who receive a transplant must take lifelong medications to keep their immune system from rejecting the donated organ.

Now, NIH-funded scientists, led by Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, have devised a possible workaround: human islet-like organoids (HILOs) [1]. These tiny replicas of pancreatic tissue are created in the laboratory, and you can see them above secreting insulin (green) in a lab dish. Remarkably, some of these HILOs have been outfitted with a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak to enable them to evade immune attack when transplanted into mice.

Over several years, Doug Melton’s lab at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, has worked steadily to coax induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are made from adult skin or blood cells, to form miniature islet-like cells in a lab dish [2]. My own lab at NIH has also been seeing steady progress in this effort, working with collaborators at the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Although several years ago researchers could get beta cells to make insulin, they wouldn’t secrete the hormone efficiently when transplanted into a living mouse. About four years ago, the Evans lab found a possible solution by uncovering a genetic switch called ERR-gamma that when flipped, powered up the engineered beta cells to respond continuously to glucose and release insulin [3].

In the latest study, Evans and his team developed a method to program HILOs in the lab to resemble actual islets. They did it by growing the insulin-producing cells alongside each other in a gelatinous, three-dimensional chamber. There, the cells combined to form organoid structures resembling the shape and contour of the islet cells seen in an actual 3D human pancreas. After they are switched on with a special recipe of growth factors and hormones, these activated HILOs secrete insulin when exposed to glucose. When transplanted into a living mouse, this process appears to operate just like human beta cells work inside a human pancreas.

Another major advance was the invisibility cloak. The Salk team borrowed the idea from cancer immunotherapy and a type of drug called a checkpoint inhibitor. These drugs harness the body’s own immune T cells to attack cancer. They start with the recognition that T cells display a protein on their surface called PD-1. When T cells interact with other cells in the body, PD-1 binds to a protein on the surface of those cells called PD-L1. This protein tells the T cells not to attack. Checkpoint inhibitors work by blocking the interaction of PD-1 and PD-L1, freeing up immune cells to fight cancer.

Reversing this logic for the pancreas, the Salk team engineered HILOs to express PD-L1 on their surface as a sign to the immune system not to attack. The researchers then transplanted these HILOs into diabetic mice that received no immunosuppressive drugs, as would normally be the case to prevent rejection of these human cells. Not only did the transplanted HILOs produce insulin in response to glucose spikes, they spurred no immune response.

So far, HILOs transplants have been used to treat diabetes for more than 50 days in diabetic mice. More research will be needed to see whether the organoids can function for even longer periods of time.

Still, this is exciting news, and provides an excellent example of how advances in one area of science can provide new possibilities for others. In this case, these insights provide fresh hope for a day when children and adults with type 1 diabetes can live long, healthy lives without the need for frequent insulin injections.

References:

[1] Immune-evasive human islet-like organoids ameliorate diabetes. [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 19]. Yoshihara E, O’Connor C, Gasser E, Wei Z, Oh TG, Tseng TW, Wang D, Cayabyab F, Dai Y, Yu RT, Liddle C, Atkins AR, Downes M, Evans RM. Nature. 2020 Aug 19. [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] Generation of Functional Human Pancreatic β Cells In Vitro. Pagliuca FW, Millman JR, Gürtler M, Segel M, Van Dervort A, Ryu JH, Peterson QP, Greiner D, Melton DA. Cell. 2014 Oct 9;159(2):428-39.

[3] ERRγ is required for the metabolic maturation of therapeutically functional glucose-responsive β cells. Yoshihara E, Wei Z, Lin CS, Fang S, Ahmadian M, Kida Y, Tseng T, Dai Y, Yu RT, Liddle C, Atkins AR, Downes M, Evans RM. Cell Metab. 2016 Apr 12; 23(4):622-634.

Links:

Type 1 Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Pancreatic Islet Transplantation (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012” for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, The Nobel Prize news release, October 8, 2012.

Evans Lab (Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute


First Virtual WALS Lecture

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NIH Lecture-Remote with Dr. James Allison
With sponsored travel and large gatherings now limited to stop the spread of COVID-19, NIH has been making lots of logistical adjustments. That includes holding the first “virtual” NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series (WALS) on March 11, 2020. I started things off from Bethesda, Maryland by looking into a video monitor in a large, mostly empty conference room and introducing Jim Allison, the cancer immunotherapy giant and recent Nobelist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In Houston, Jim walked to the podium in a mostly empty hall (top left), called for his slides, and delivered a roughly 45-minute presentation titled Immune Checkpoint Blockade in Cancer Therapy: Historical Perspective, New Opportunities, and Prospects for Cures. Taking it all in online was a large NIH audience that included next to me another cancer immunotherapy giant, Steve Rosenberg of NIH’s National Cancer Institute (bottom right). At the conclusion of the presentation, NIH staff emailed questions to the podium in Houston, where Jim provided the answers. Still left to be worked out in this virtual format is how to share afterwards in the real-world coffee, refreshments, and stimulating conversation. Credit: NIH

Working to Improve Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

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Lung Cancer Immunotherapy
Credit: Xiaodong Zhu, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle

For those who track cancer statistics, this year started off on a positive note with word that lung cancer deaths continue to decline in the United States [1]. While there’s plenty of credit to go around for that encouraging news—and continued reduction in smoking is a big factor—some of this progress likely can be ascribed to a type of immunotherapy, called PD-1 inhibitors. This revolutionary approach has dramatically changed the treatment landscape for the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

PD-1 inhibitors, which have only been available for about five years, prime one component of a patient’s own immune system, called T cells, to seek and destroy malignant cells in the lungs. Unfortunately, however, only about 20 percent of people with NSCLC respond to PD-1 inhibitors. So, many researchers, including the team of A. McGarry Houghton, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, are working hard to extend the benefits of immunotherapy to more cancer patients.

The team’s latest paper, published in JCI Insight [2], reveals that one culprit behind a poor response to immunotherapy may be the immune system’s own first responders: neutrophils. Billions of neutrophils circulate throughout the body to track down abnormalities, such as harmful bacteria and malignant cells. They also contact other parts of the immune system, including T cells, if help is needed to eliminate the health threat.

In their study, the Houghton team, led by Julia Kargl, combined several lab techniques to take a rigorous, unbiased look at the immune cell profiles of tumor samples from dozens of NSCLC patients who received PD-1 inhibitors as a frontline treatment. The micrographs above show tumor samples from two of these patients.

In the image on the left, large swaths of T cells (light blue) have infiltrated the cancer cells (white specks). Interestingly, other immune cells, including neutrophils (magenta), are sparse.

In contrast, in the image on the right, T cells (light blue) are sparse. Instead, the tumor teems with other types of immune cells, including macrophages (red), two types of monocytes (yellow, green), and, most significantly, lots of neutrophils (magenta). These cells arise from myeloid progenitor cells in the bone marrow, while T cells arise from the marrow’s lymphoid progenitor cell.

Though the immune profiles of some tumor samples were tough to classify, the researchers found that most fit neatly into two subgroups: tumors showing active levels of T cell infiltration (like the image on the left) or those with large numbers of myeloid immune cells, especially neutrophils (like the image on the right). This dichotomy then served as a reliable predictor of treatment outcome. In the tumor samples with majority T cells, the PD-1 inhibitor worked to varying degrees. But in the tumor samples with predominantly neutrophil infiltration, the treatment failed.

Houghton’s team has previously found that many cancers, including NSCLC, actively recruit neutrophils, turning them into zombie-like helpers that falsely signal other immune cells, like T cells, to stay away. Based on this information, Houghton and colleagues used a mouse model of lung cancer to explore a possible way to increase the success rate of PD-1 immunotherapy.

In their mouse experiments, the researchers found that when PD-1 was combined with an existing drug that inhibits neutrophils, lung tumors infiltrated with neutrophils were converted into tumors infiltrated by T cells. The tumors treated with the combination treatment also expressed genes associated with an active immunotherapy response.

This year, January brought encouraging news about decreasing deaths from lung cancer. But with ongoing basic research, like this study, to tease out the mechanisms underlying the success and failure of immunotherapy, future months may bring even better news.

References:

[1] Cancer statistics, 2020. Siegel RL, Miller KD, Jemal A. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020 Jan;70(1):7-30.

[2] Neutrophil content predicts lymphocyte depletion and anti-PD1 treatment failure in NSCLC. Kargl J, Zhu X, Zhang H, Yang GHY, Friesen TJ, Shipley M, Maeda DY, Zebala JA, McKay-Fleisch J, Meredith G, Mashadi-Hossein A, Baik C, Pierce RH, Redman MW, Thompson JC, Albelda SM, Bolouri H, Houghton AM. JCI Insight. 2019 Dec 19;4(24).

[3] Neutrophils dominate the immune cell composition in non-small cell lung cancer. Kargl J, Busch SE, Yang GH, Kim KH, Hanke ML, Metz HE, Hubbard JJ, Lee SM, Madtes DK, McIntosh MW, Houghton AM. Nat Commun. 2017 Feb 1;8:14381.

Links:

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Spotlight on McGarry Houghton (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle)

Houghton Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


Fighting Cancer with Next-Gen Cell Engineering

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Kole Roybal
Credit: Susan Merrell

Researchers continue to make progress with cancer immunotherapy, a type of treatment that harnesses the body’s own immune cells to attack cancer. But Kole Roybal wants to help move the field further ahead by engineering patients’ immune cells to detect an even broader range of cancers and then launch customized attacks against them.

With an eye toward developing the next generation of cell-based immunotherapies, this synthetic biologist at University of California, San Francisco, has already innovatively hacked into how certain cells communicate with each other. Now, he and his research team are using a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to build upon that progress.

Roybal’s initial inspiration is CAR-T therapy, one of the most advanced immunotherapies to date. In CAR-T therapy, some of a cancer patient’s key immune cells, called T cells, are removed and engineered in a way that they begin to produce new surface proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). Those receptors allow the cells to recognize and attack cancer cells more effectively. After expanding the number of these engineered T cells in the lab, doctors infuse them back into patients to enhance their immune systems’s ability to seek-and-destroy their cancer.

As helpful as this approach has been for some people with leukemia, lymphoma, and certain other cancers, it has its limitations. For one, CAR-T therapy relies solely on a T cell’s natural activation program, which can be toxic to patients if the immune cells damage healthy tissues. In other patients, the response simply isn’t strong enough to eradicate a cancer.

Roybal realized that redirecting T cells to attack a broader range of cancers would take more than simply engineering the receptors to bind to cancer cells. It also would require sculpting novel immune cell responses once those receptors were triggered.

Roybal found a solution in a new class of lab-made receptors known as Synthetic Notch, or SynNotch, that he and his colleagues have been developing over the last several years [1, 2]. Notch protein receptors play an essential role in developmental pathways and cell-to-cell communication across a wide range of animal species. What Roybal and his colleagues found especially intriguing is the protein receptors’ mode of action is remarkably direct.

When a protein binds the Notch receptor, a portion of the receptor breaks off and heads for the cell nucleus, where it acts as a switch to turn on other genes. They realized that engineering a cancer patient’s immune cells with synthetic SynNotch receptors could offer extraordinary flexibility in customized sensing and response behaviors. What’s more, the receptors could be tailored to respond to a number of user-specified cues outside of a cell.

In his NIH-supported work, Roybal will devise various versions of SynNotch-engineered cells targeting solid tumors that have proven difficult to treat with current cell therapies. He reports that they are currently developing the tools to engineer cells to sense a broad spectrum of cancers, including melanoma, glioblastoma, and pancreatic cancer.

They’re also engineering cells equipped to respond to a tumor by producing a range of immune factors, including antibodies known to unleash the immune system against cancer. He says he’ll also work on adding engineered SynNotch molecules to other immune cell types, not just T cells.

Given the versatility of the approach, Roybal doesn’t plan to stop there. He’s also interested in regenerative medicine and in engineering therapeutic cells to treat autoimmune conditions. I’m looking forward to see just how far these and other next-gen cell therapies will take us.

References:

[1] Engineering Customized Cell Sensing and Response Behaviors Using Synthetic Notch Receptors. Morsut L, Roybal KT, Xiong X, Gordley RM, Coyle SM, Thomson M, Lim WA. Cell. 2016 Feb 11;164(4):780-91.

[2] Engineering T Cells with Customized Therapeutic Response Programs Using Synthetic Notch Receptors. Roybal KT, Williams JZ, Morsut L, Rupp LJ, Kolinko I, Choe JH, Walker WJ, McNally KA, Lim WA. Cell. 2016 Oct 6;167(2):419-432.e16.

Links:

Car-T Cells: Engineering Patients’ Immune Cells to Treat Cancers (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Synthetic Biology for Technology Development (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Roybal Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Roybal Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute


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