Immunoengineering a Better Cancer Treatment

In Brief:

  • Immunoengineering is a new field in which scientists craft therapies that work with the immune system.
  • A team at the Wyss Institute developed vaccines that fool the immune system into attacking cancer cells.
  • One of their vaccines is currently undergoing clinical trials.

For most, the thought of cancer treatment is immediately linked to radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy. However, for a handful of scientists from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, cancer therapy means the newly minted field of immunoengineering.

Immunoengineering is the combination of immunology, the study of immune systems, and engineering. At the Wyss Institute, a team of students and professors is using immunoengineering to develop vaccines that target cancer cells by working with immune system signaling. Dr. David Mooney, a founding member of the Institute with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leads this team.

At the “Mooney lab,” as it is known, the work is fast-paced and the research has been groundbreaking. Aileen Li is a graduate student with a B.S. in biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech who is now a part of Dr. Mooney’s team.

“The Mooney lab is a pioneer in cancer immunoengineering,” she says. “When I joined the lab, they had just developed a macroporous polymer-based cancer vaccine showing unprecedented melanoma regression in preclinical animal models.” In layman’s terms, this means that the Mooney lab created a working vaccine for skin cancer with the help of animal models.

Immunoengineering a Better Cancer Treatment

The Mooney lab’s vaccines work by manipulating dendritic cells, which act as a surveillance system for the body that detects foreign substances and notifies the immune system. While this arrangement is often effective when defending the body against invasion and illness, things go wrong when it comes to cancer.

Early cancer cells are similar to healthy body cells, so dendritic cells aren’t able to recognize them as foreign. To address this, the Mooney lab is developing a vaccine that alerts the immune system to the presence of cancer cells.

When injected into the body, the vaccine releases cytokines, which are specially shaped proteins. These serve the dual purpose of alerting dendritic cells and coating cancer cells. Once the dendritic cells send out a signal, the immune system attacks the cytokines. The cancer cells, covered by the cytokines, then bear the brunt of the attack. In effect, the vaccine tricks the immune system into attacking cancer cells.

Currently, the Mooney lab is working on improving its vaccines. But, the team’s research isn’t restricted to the lab. “One of our cancer vaccines using the polymer PLGA (a material commonly used in sutures) is currently in phase 1 clinical trials for patients with advanced [skin cancer],” Li says.

If all goes well, there could soon be a new, less harmful cancer treatment on the market. Although Dr. Mooney’s team has only focused on cancer therapy so far, their technique of targeted vaccines also has applications in treating other diseases that affect the immune system. Thanks to their research, immunoengineering might just become a successful method of treating cancer and with any luck, further development will help it do the same for other diseases as well.

Works Cited

  1. Li, Aileen, David J. Mooney, and J. Kim. “3D Vaccine Spontaneously Assembles to Pack a Powerful Punch against Cancer, Infectious Diseases National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. January 23, 2015.
  2. Aileen Li, interview by Viktoria Latinoska.
  3. Li, Aileen, and David J. Mooney. “Materials Based Tumor Immunotherapy Vaccines.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
  4. McAlpine, Kat J., and Caroline Perry. “Injectable 3D Vaccines Could Fight Cancer and Infectious Diseases.” Wyss Institute at Harvard. December 8, 2014.

Image Credits:
Feature Image:

  1. “3D Vaccine Slica Rods” by Aileen W Li, Jaeyun Kim, James Weaver and David J Mooney (Edited). License: CC BY-NC 2.0

Story Image:

  1. “T Helper Cell” by Anonymous (Edited). License: CC0 1.0
  2.  “Syringe” by Jan (Edited). License: CC0 1.0
  3. “Cancer Cells” by Cancer Research UK (Edited). License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Chief Editor: Aparna Ragupathi
Creative Team Coordinator: Sreya Das
Team Editor: Emily Liu
Team Graphic Designer: Lucia Tian

This article was written by Viktoria Latinoska. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cSw Editorial Staff

Viktoria Latinoska

Author: Viktoria Latinoska

Hello science lovers! My name is Viktoria Latinoska, and I am a senior at Garfield High School. The passion I have for science and the medical field is one that cannot be measured, as I aspire to major in biochemistry and proceed on into medical school. I participate in numerous extracurricular activities, some include the math team, newspaper, women's empowerment, student council, and a youth group in my community known as EPIC (Empower Peers & Inspire Change) that spreads awareness about alcohol and substance abuse. Alongside those activities I am a member of the National Honor Society and the Math Honor Society. Being a first year member of the Curious Science Writers team as a writer, I was not sure of what I should expect, but it made a positive influence in my life and my desire to communicate compelling pieces of medical/scientific information in ways that get people excited only increased! I hope you enjoy my article and feel free to ask any questions you have! Thank you!

Share This Post On


  1. Avatar

    This is interesting, informative, and quite well written. Surely with such a hard working team, dedication, and time, I have no doubt that we can develop more and more ways of fighting cancer.

    Post a Reply
  2. Avatar

    What an interesting article! I can definitely sense the passion for science from your writing. Congrats on the publication.

    Post a Reply
  3. Avatar

    Interesting! This is the first time that I’ve heard of immunoengineering, and it has prompted me to look more into this novel approach for cancer treatment. Nice article!

    Post a Reply
  4. Avatar

    The emerging technology and our advancements in medicine never cease to amaze me! You did a wonderful job relaying all of this complex scientific information. I am actually working on a research project regarding cancer treatment myself, so I appreciate this article very much 🙂

    Post a Reply
  5. Avatar

    Viktoria, what an interesting story. Thanks for posting this. I know there is much talk of using the body’s immune system to fight off cancer. This research seems to take that goal even further. How amazing would it be to find out that if you are given a cancer diagnosis instead of dreading the treatment options you just go for a shot instead?

    Post a Reply
  6. Avatar

    Awesome read! Great job and great article!

    Post a Reply
  7. Avatar

    This is a well-written article that helps readers understand this new technology that could help fight cancer.

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *