Prof. Tal Danino Awarded Two Prestigious Grants in Cancer Research

Grants from the Cancer Research Institute and the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance will enable Danino to pursue his research in engineering bacteria to fight cancer

Aug 05 2020 | By Alexis Newman | Photo Credit: Eileen Barroso

Prof. Tal Danino

Tal Danino, associate professor of biomedical engineering, has been awarded two prestigious grants that will allow his lab to pursue research in engineering bacteria as a cancer therapy. One of the leading researchers in this field, Danino designs probiotic and other safe bacteria to target tumors and controllably deliver cancer therapeutics from within the tumor, acting as a microbial “Trojan horse.”

Danino received a five-year, $1.25 million Lloyd J. Old STAR program grant from the Cancer Research Institute (CRI) in recognition of the outstanding quality and promise of his research. The CRI Lloyd J. Old STAR — Scientists Taking Risks—award provides long-term funding to mid-career scientists, giving them the freedom and flexibility to pursue high-risk, high-reward research at the forefront of cancer immunotherapy innovation.

Danino also was recently awarded a three-year $600,000 Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research from the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance (PSSCRA) to help advance cancer immunotherapy research. The PSSCRA prize is given to exceptional young scientists in New York City who have innovative ideas in the field of cancer research. Danino is one of seven PSSCRA winners who are encouraged to take risks and pursue bold ideas that will lead to new discoveries and approaches in cancer research.

Researchers have long known that because bacteria can selectively colonize solid tumors, they can also locally release high concentrations of immune-stimulating as well as toxic payloads. This localized activity may result in fewer side effects from treatment. Over a century ago, Dr. William Coley, considered the “father of immunotherapy,” discovered that bacteria can induce tumor regression and long-term disease remission by stimulation of the immune system. In 1953, his daughter, Helen Coley Nauts, co-founded the CRI to promote the use of immunotherapies for cancer. More recently, microbiome studies have demonstrated the prevalence of bacteria within tumor tissue, and a number of empirical studies have shown that administered bacteria can home in on tumors and then, due to reduced immune surveillance of the tumor cores, and selectively begin to grow inside the tumors.

“This is an exciting time for our work on bacteria therapies,” says Danino. “Immunotherapy is now poised to overcome several current limitations for successful interventions against treatment-resistant and metastasized cancers. And the microbiome and synthetic biology fields are pointing towards microbes are modulators of the immune system for cancer therapy.”

Danino’s group leverages modern approaches from synthetic biology to engineer safe and effective bacterial immunotherapies for cancer. Collaborating closely with Nicholas Arpaia's lab at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) for their immunology expertise, Danino’s team is focused on using synthetic biology approaches to engineer a range of bacterial candidates, and then analyze their interactions with immune cells in tumors to determine the optimal strains for eliciting anti-cancer immune activity. 

Columbia Engineering would like to acknowledge support for the PSSCRA grant from CUIMC’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC), directed by Dr. Anil Rustgi.

Danino’s overarching goal is that his engineered probiotic and bacterial systems will lead to transformative improvements in cancer therapies, ultimately improving patient outcomes. He notes, “These grants give us the freedom to develop creative and innovative bacteria-based therapies that have real potential to advance current immunotherapeutic delivery approaches for cancer. I’m honored that our work has been recognized by these awards and am excited about where this generous funding will take us.”

Programmed Bacteria for Cancer Immunotherapy.