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Revolutionizing cancer treatment through programmable bacteria

Cell Image Credit: Hexagon Vector Credit: PLMT/

A multi-university team of researchers, supported by federal funding, is developing a highly efficient bacterial therapeutic to target cancer more precisely to make treatment safer through a single $1 dose.

Traditionally, cancer therapies have been limited in their efficacy in treating patients. Some, like radiation and chemotherapy, cause harmful side effects, while others tend to result in low patient responsiveness, not to mention the cost it takes to receive treatment. Findings from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network recorded that 73% of cancer survivors and patients were worried about how they were going to pay the cost of their cancer care, and 51% said they were in medical debt from treatment. For example, state-of-the-art cancer therapy can cost up to $1,000,000.

Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri are leading the effort to develop a low-cost, safe, and controlled cancer treatment. Researchers received a $20 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health(ARPA-H) to fight cancer. The four-year project is part of the current administration’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, an effort to advance and increase funding for cancer research. It is one of the first projects funded by the newly established agency that aims to accelerate better health outcomes for everyone by supporting the development of high-impact solutions to society’s most challenging health problems.

$12 million of the grant will go to the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station/Texas A&M, where co-principal investigators Drs. Arum Han, Jim Song and Chelsea Hu are developing synthetic programmable bacteria for immune-directed killing in tumor environments (SPIKEs). The idea is to engineer bacteria to help T cells kill cancerous tissue, destroy itself once the cancer is gone, and leave the body safely as human waste.

“SPIKEs can specifically target tumor cells,” said Han, the Texas Instruments Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “And since it’s only targeting cancerous tissue and not the surrounding healthy cells, the safety of the patient is exponentially increased. It’s a great honor to be on this team, tackling a major health problem that affects a lot of people.”

Han’s lab is developing high-throughput microfluidic systems that can rapidly process and screen massive bacterial therapeutic libraries, one cell at a time, to quickly identify the most promising treatments. These systems are enabled by integrating microfabrication methods and biotechnology to achieve a pico-liter-volume liquid handling system that can accurately analyze single cells with high precision and high speeds, creating devices to analyze individual cells quickly.