Washington State University researchers hope that their tool to rapidly grow cancer-killing T cells can someday make a difference in fighting the disease.

Under the guidance of Professor Bernard Van Wie, graduate students Kitana Kaiphanliam and Brenden Fraser-Hevlin are working to commercialize a bioreactor that is able to grow 25 times more of the valuable T cells than current technology in half the time.

They recently won a $50,000 grant through WSU’s inaugural Cougar Cage competition to commercialize the technology.

They also took third place out of more than 100 teams in the 2021 University of Washington Dempsey Startup Competition. The work was spawned through a National Science Foundation EAGER, or Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research award, targeting “high-risk high-payoff” approaches for large scale manufacturing of therapeutic cells. Bill Davis from WSU’s Veterinary Microbiology & Pathology Department is a co-investigator.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. and there are around 17 million new cases reported worldwide annually. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are the most commonly used cancer treatments, but they often harm healthy tissue. Immunotherapy, on the other hand, harnesses the power of the body’s natural immune response and only targets cancer cells.

T cells are a type of white blood cell used in immunotherapy treatment. The T cells are taken from the patient’s body, modified to specifically target cancer, expanded and grown to a higher density, and then injected back into the patient, allowing the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer. Current treatment, however, is limited because of the cost and time needed to grow the cells.

About this series

The Cougar Cage competition is a new way for WSU students, faculty and staff to secure private donor support through the Palouse Club for worthwhile projects that can help build the continued success of the University.

This series explores the first six projects to survive the competition and win funding from the group.

Modeled after the popular TV show Shark Tank, the first Cougar Cage match concluded in March. Future rounds are being planned.

“It takes a long time to grow the cells, the process is inefficient, and most importantly, it’s so expensive,” said Fraser-Hevlin. “We’re trying to make this process more efficient, faster, and less expensive, creating a more affordable option for patients.”

The technology the students are hoping to commercialize was originally developed by Van Wie in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering. Van Wie over the past four decades designed a centrifugal bioreactor to rapidly densify and expand cells for tissue engineering and antibody production applications.

“I realized that this great device that could be used to help people would stay in academia unless someone in our group focused on the business aspects and entrepreneurial guide of taking an idea to market,” said Kaiphanliam. “When you believe in a technology so much, and you want it to help people, you don’t want to see it stay in an academic lab.”

As they continue their doctoral studies, Kaiphanliam and Fraser-Hevlin are in the process of developing a company, Ananta, to begin producing and marketing the technology.  In addition to the Cougar Cage competition, they have participated in several entrepreneurial programs through WSU. Kaiphanliam, who received her undergraduate degree at WSU, said the programs have prepared them well for launching their start-up. They also received grants through the WSU Commercialization Gap Fund and the Washington Research Foundation.

They are now working to build a microwave-sized version of the bioreactor, making it more convenient for hospitals and researchers to use. They are also beginning to test their prototype using bovine T cells and designing a process control system that will help them do real-time monitoring of the cells as they’re growing in the reactor. The monitoring is to address a problem called cell exhaustion, in which the T cells have a tendency to get worn out as they’re stimulated by their immune response.

As they launch Ananta, Kaiphanliam says she has had a lifetime interest in helping people and is excited about the opportunity to promote a new technology that could save lives.  For his part, Fraser-Hevlin saw his father survive a cancer fight a decade ago and thought for a long time about how he might make a difference in helping people manage the disease.

“It’s an area that I’ve been interested in,” he said. “With this project, I’ve really been able to get involved in actually developing something that’s going to be valuable, useful, and hopefully help a lot of people.”