This fall, Villanova University introduced a Cellular Engineering course in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and by all accounts it has quickly become a student favorite. Taught by Assistant Professor Jacob Elmer, PhD, the course was developed in response to increased demand from industry. “In the past year, students who have experience in cellular engineering or gene therapy have been hired immediately. Companies like Janssen Pharmaceuticals and GlaxoSmithKline email me for the names of students who have some knowledge in these areas,” says Dr. Elmer. Until now, these experiences have been limited to graduate students, but through this new course, undergraduates will also gain a competitive edge in this rapidly evolving field.
Treating the cell as a machine, Dr. Elmer approaches the class the way one would approach engineering a bridge or car. He explains, “The first thing you have to know is how that machine works,” and because most cellular engineering projects involve putting a new gene in a cell, that’s where the course begins. The first third of the semester is spent on genetics—what a gene is, how cells decide when to express some genes and not others, and how DNA is transcribed to RNA and translated into protein. Following this deep dive into genetics, the second part of the course is dedicated to tools and techniques—how to deliver a gene to a cell, how to ensure that it’s going to express, and how to culture cells.
Dr. Elmer describes the last module of the course as a general survey of the different ways in which cells have been engineered, from using algae to create biofuels and growing genetically modified crops, to stem cell/tissue engineering for artificial organs and using T cells to kill cancer cells (CAR-T therapy). As one of Dr. Elmer’s areas of expertise and research, CAR-T therapy is a major focus of the course. In 2016, he won a National Science Foundation grant to develop new technologies and techniques that streamline the production of genetically engineered T cells to treat leukemia patients.
Throughout the course, there are conversations about the inherent risks—and ethics—of genetic and cellular engineering. The class recently discussed the Chinese researcher who claims to have helped make the world's first genetically edited babies, and early on, Dr. Elmer shared the controversy over Monsanto, which became one of the most vilified large corporations in the world over a range of issues involving its industrial and agricultural chemical products and genetically modified seed. Dr. Elmer also notes the distinction between germline engineering and somatic cells. Germline engineering affects reproductive cells that will be passed down to subsequent generations. Somatic cells, on the other hand, pose no risk to progeny because they die in weeks or months. T cells are one example; they are taken from the body, engineered, put back in and die in three to six months. He emphasizes, “We’re not touching germ line engineering, which the United States government doesn’t even allow.”
For their final projects, the 15 students in Cellular Engineering were challenged to develop ideas based on what they’d learned in the course. One team pursued screening for muscular dystrophy, while another considered the possibility of increased longevity in hamsters. Dr. Elmer admits, “I put them through the wringer in this course; it’s definitely a difficult one, but the students are clearly engaged. I get emails from them asking for the names of companies that do this kind of work, something that doesn’t happen when I teach other courses.”
Earlier this year, Villanova University established NovaCell, the Center for Cellular Engineering, whose mission is to lead efforts to improve cell and gene therapy products, and the bioprocesses used to make them. More information can be found on the Center website.