Innovative immune system approach earns ASU researcher honors

Jessica Weaver, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, has been selected as one of the 12 Young Innovators of Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering for 2023.

The award, bestowed by the journal Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering, or CMBE, recognizes her novel hydrogel and approach to manipulating immunological responses.

Weaver and the researchers in her lab investigated how cells communicate during pregnancy — the only naturally occurring phenomenon where the body doesn’t reject foreign cells. The team says that trophoblasts, which are the cells that form the placenta, communicate through particles known as extracellular vesicles, some of which contain molecules called tolerogenic factors that regulate the immune system’s response.

Weaver and her team engineered a way to use hydrogel biomaterials to deliver the extracellular vesicles to a cell transplantation site. Using this method, they hope to locally eliminate the body’s immune response to locally transplanted cells, which would avoid weakening the entire body.

“We created a different system for delivering these extracellular vesicles that have them tethered to the hydrogel so it will slowly diffuse to last longer,” Weaver says. “Nobody has ever used trophoblasts as a therapy like this before.”

Weaver’s approach using trophoblasts is called “placental mimicry” and is also being developed through her startup, Immunoshield Therapeutics, where the team is working on establishing efficacy and dosage. She is optimistic about the hydrogel’s potential to spare patients from the challenges of immunosuppressants while improving their prognosis. Furthermore, increased acceptance of hydrogel biomaterials may also increase the longevity of donor organs and enable treatment for more patients in need.

“I’ve always been interested in how technology translates into industry and patient care,” Weaver says. “It’s exciting to be moving closer to clinical testing so we can ultimately get patients access to our technology.”

SourceArizona State University

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