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May 26, 2020

Immunoengineering Center Investigates COVID-19 Vaccine Possibilities


Lee Harris / The Chicago Maroon

The Chicago Immunoengineering Innovation Center (CIIC) was founded in February to bring together translational immunology researchers and promote immunoengineering technology at the University. Translational immunology is the science of applying immunological discoveries to clinical and human problems. The center has begun research on immunotherapy and therapies for diseases, including cancer and COVID-19. In addition, the CIIC aims to work closely with the Polsky Center to bring together corporate partners for the development and licensing of technologies.

“For the traditional research steps, government research grants suffice, but final stages of testing a new therapy can be very expensive and can require additional funding,” Shann Yu, scientific director of the CIIC, said. “Collaborations with corporate partners and entrepreneurs can provide our researchers with the very needed resources.”

Research at the CIIC includes cancer immunotherapy and therapies for fruit allergies. But recently, the CIIC has focused a large effort toward COVID-19 research. Currently, there are projects for creating a vaccine for the disease led by Jeffrey Hubbell and Melody Swartz, co-directors of the center.

“The vaccine projects harmoniously bring together the resources of Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and medical centers across the country,” Hubbell said.

Hubbell is leading a COVID-19 vaccine project at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) and has clinical collaborators for future testing at Harvard Medical School. Other CIIC COVID-19 projects include a study on COVID-19–related acute respiratory distress syndrome, which results in pneumonia and inflammation in the lungs. This project is a collaboration between the PME and the section of rheumatology at UChicago Medicine.

Other vaccination projects at the CIIC include vaccines to prevent cancer and the development of food allergies. Cathryn Nagler, a professor at the PME, focuses on therapies against food and nut allergies. Nagler has been doing this work prior to the formation of the CIIC, raising over $3.5 million in funding in 2018 to build her own startup ClostraBio.

According to Hubbell, the CIIC aims to encourage the growth of PME’s research into entrepreneurial and investor spaces, just as Nagler has done with her research. Both Hubbell and Yu expect to have the Polsky Center be involved in promoting this type of entrepreneurial spirit.

“In addition to building partnerships with the Polsky Center to commercialize the technologies, we are trying to build internships as well for graduate students,” Yu said.

While Hubbell expects the new center to have close contacts with the Polsky Center, licensing of technologies from the PME and CIIC will be a joint process involving researchers at every level of discussion. “The principal investigators will take active roles for licensing and in discussions while Polsky will be involved in business development and legal talks with investors,” Hubbell said.

The establishment of the CIIC adds to the growing biotechnology community in Chicago, and the center will certainly be involved in further fundraising efforts to grow its operations. “We are excited to pursue our vision of creating a great ecosystem for immunoengineering innovation in Chicago,” Yu said.

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