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College of Engineering Establishes New Research Center

College of Engineering Establishes New Research Center

Villanova University College of Engineering has established the Center for Cellular Engineering (NovaCell), with the mission of leading efforts to improve cell and gene therapy products and the bioprocesses used to make them. The center is launching less than a year after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an historic action making the first gene therapy available in the United States, ushering in a new approach to the treatment of cancer and other serious and life-threatening diseases. Villanova University, with its proximity to major medical research hospitals and centers, as well as pharmaceutical companies working on cell therapy products, is poised to make its own contributions to this burgeoning field.

According to center Director Dr. William Kelly, Chemical Engineering professor and director of the College’s Biochemical Engineering graduate program, NovaCell will focus on personalized medicine, particularly the immune system. He explains, “In personalized medicine, cells from the patient can be harvested, genetically modified and delivered back to the patient. The use of cells as medicinal agents presents exciting opportunities, but also many challenges, not the least of which are manufacturing techniques.”

The NovaCell lab will include a state-of-the art WAVE bioreactor system, a device used by many pharmaceutical companies but present in only a few academic laboratories nationwide. The WAVE system has potential for use with personalized medicine applications, such as CAR-T cell therapy; because the bags used to grow the cells in are disposable, each patient can have their own pre-sterilized bag. Researchers at Villanova will study the capabilities of this bioreactor to provide an optimal environment for growth of human T cells by minimizing shear forces and maintaining an adequate supply of the key nutrients for cell growth.

In September 2016, three members of Villanova’s Chemical Engineering department were awarded a National Science Foundation grant for “Bio manufacturing: Optimizing the Isolation, Transfection, and Expansion of CAR-T cells with Modified PES Membranes.” Primary investigator Dr. Jacob Elmer, assistant professor, and his colleagues  Drs. Kelly and Noelle Comolli, associate professor and department chair, have expanded their capabilities to include the study of human immune cells (CAR-T cells), and will use the WAVE bioreactor system for manufacture of the cells. In addition to these faculty, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Dr. Zuyi “Jacky” Huang and Mechanical Engineering Professor Dr. Jens Karlsson will also contribute to NovaCell’s research, as will Biochemistry professors Drs. Anil Bamezai and Aimee Eggler from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. NovaCell hopes to also establish external partnerships with local medical centers and pharmaceutical companies.

More information can be found on NovaCell’s website.