HomeNewsFive MIT faculty members tackle the “Cancer Grand Challenges.”

Five MIT faculty members tackle the “Cancer Grand Challenges.”

The Cancer Grand Challenges recently announced five winning teams for 2024, including five researchers from MIT: Michael Birnbaum, Regina Barzilay, Brandon DeKosky, Seychelle Vos and Ömer Yilmaz. Each team includes interdisciplinary cancer researchers from world wide and can receive $25 million over five years.

Birnbaum, an associate professor within the Department of Bioengineering, leads the MATCHMAKERS team and is joined by co-investigators Barzilay, the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of AI and Health within the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the top of the AI ​​faculty the university supports MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health; and DeKosky, Phillip and Susan Ragon Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering. All three are also partners within the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

The MATCHMAKERS team will leverage recent advances in artificial intelligence to develop tools for personalized immunotherapies for cancer patients. Cancer immunotherapies, which recruit the patient's own immune system against the disease, have transformed the treatment of some kinds of cancer, but not for all kinds and never for all patients.

T cells are a goal for immunotherapy as a consequence of their central role within the immune response. These immune cells use receptors on their surface to acknowledge protein fragments, called antigens, on cancer cells. Once T cells bind to cancer antigens, they mark them for destruction by the immune system. However, T cell receptors vary exceedingly inside an individual's immune system and from individual to individual, making it difficult to predict how a person cancer patient will reply to immunotherapy.

The MATCHMAKERS team will collect data about T cell receptors and the various antigens they aim and construct computer models to predict antigen recognition by different T cell receptors. The team's overall goal is to develop tools to predict T cell recognition using easy clinical laboratory tests and to develop antigen-specific immunotherapies. “If successful, what we’re learning in our team could help transform the prediction of T cell receptor recognition from something that is simply possible in a number of sophisticated laboratories on the planet for a number of people at a time to a routine process.” says Birnbaum.

“The MATCHMAKERS project builds on MIT’s long tradition of developing cutting-edge artificial intelligence tools for the good thing about society,” commented Ryan Schoenfeld, CEO of the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research. “Their approach to optimizing immunotherapy for cancer and plenty of other diseases exemplifies the form of interdisciplinary research The Mark Foundation values ​​support.” In addition to the Mark Foundation, the MATCHMAKERS team is funded by Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute.

Vos, Robert A. Swanson (1969), Career Development Professor of Biological Sciences and HHMI Freeman Hrabowksi Fellow within the Department of Biology, will probably be a co-investigator on Team KOODAC. The KOODAC team will develop recent treatments for solid tumors in children, using protein degradation strategies to handle previously “untreatable” cancer drivers. KOODAC is funded by Cancer Research UK, the French Institute National Du Cancer and KiKa (Children Cancer Free Foundation) through Cancer Grand Challenges.

As a co-investigator on Team PROSPECT, Yilmaz, who can also be a Koch Institute partner, will help address early-onset colorectal cancer, an emerging global problem in people under 50. The team goals to elucidate pathways, risk aspects and molecules involved in the event of the disease. Team PROSPECT is supported by Cancer Research UK, the US National Cancer Institute, the Bowelbabe Fund for Cancer Research UK and the French Institut National Du Cancer through Cancer Grand Challenges.


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