News Release

Harvard bioengineers' biomaterial-based cancer immunotherapies to be developed by Novartis

Licensing and collaboration agreement aims to bring biomaterial-based cancer immunotherapies into clinical development

Business Announcement

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard

Researcher Holding Cancer Vaccine Scaffold

image: Made of the polymer that's used in biodegradable sutures, this aspirin-sized device is designed to deliver immunotherapy agents that activate the immune system against tumors. view more 

Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

(BOSTON) - The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) announced today that Novartis will have access to commercially develop their therapeutic, biomaterial-based, cancer vaccine technology that promotes anti-cancer immunity. Under a licensing agreement spearheaded by Harvard's Office of Technology Development (OTD), Novartis will have worldwide rights, in target-limited applications, to develop and translate this approach to treat patients.

Unlike cell-based cancer immunotherapies that rely on manipulating immune cells outside of the body and transferring them into patients, the implantable immuno-material approach activates endogenous immune cells inside the body to launch an attack on the patient's own cancer. The novel technique was developed, incubated, and advanced at the Wyss Institute and SEAS by David Mooney, Wyss Core Faculty member, lead of the Immuno-Materials initiative at the Wyss Institute, and Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

The first-generation therapy consists of a porous scaffold material made from a widely used biodegradable medical polymer infused with inactivated antigens from the patient's tumor cells, as well as immunostimulatory molecules that attract dendritic cells of the immune system to the immuno-material site and activate them to stimulate a host response. After activation, the dendritic cells home to nearby lymph nodes to orchestrate anti-tumor responses throughout the body.

"This work resulted from a remarkable cross-disciplinary effort using the combined expertise of bioengineers, cancer biologists and immunologists," said Mooney. "We have demonstrated that these biomaterials can be easily delivered to patients, provide sustained and local release of immune-modulating factors, and bypass the need for modification of cells outside the body. This concept has led to a very promising platform for cancer immunotherapy."

In 2013, the Wyss Institute and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) initiated a Phase I clinical trial at DFCI to test the safety of the first of these implantable, immuno-material-based cancer vaccines in patients with melanoma, a lethal form of skin cancer. The trial, led by F. Stephen Hodi, Jr., M.D., Director of DFCI's Melanoma Center and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is still ongoing with many of its original patients.

The trial followed extensive preclinical studies performed by a collaborative team headed by Mooney and Glenn Dranoff, M.D., who at the time was a Wyss Institute Associate Faculty member and co-leader of Dana Farber's Cancer Vaccine Center. The team demonstrated that the cancer vaccine could potentially shrink or eradicate multiple types of tumors, in addition to providing prophylactic protection, in various animal models. Dranoff is now Global Head of Exploratory Immuno-Oncology at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research.

Novartis has also established a collaboration agreement with the Wyss Institute to further develop biomaterial systems for its portfolio of second-generation immuno-oncology therapies.

"When we initiated this cancer vaccine program at the Wyss Institute, it was strike zone for what we wanted to pursue - a research project conceived by our visionary faculty that was high-risk and required a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary effort but had the potential to bring about a transformative advance in clinical care. Then, with the vision and collaborative support of another institutional member of the Wyss Institute consortium, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, we made the decision to co-fund a Phase I clinical trial inside academia, which was really pushing the envelope. Thus, this agreement is extremely exciting for us because it validates our innovation model, but even more importantly, it will bring an exciting new therapeutic modality into the clinic for patients with many different types of cancer," said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children's Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.


The development and study of the cancer vaccine was funded by the Wyss Institute, DFCI, and the National Institutes of Health. The licensed technologies are owned or co-owned by Harvard University, DFCI, and the University of Michigan.

In addition to Mooney, Dranoff, and Hodi, other collaborators include Wyss Senior Staff Scientist Edward Doherty, Wyss Institute Staff Scientist Omar Ali, M.D., DFCI-Executive Director Jerome Ritz, M.D., Sara Russell, M.D. and Charles Yoon, M.D., surgeons at Dana-Farber, Wyss Institute Scientist Alexander Stafford, B.S., and other Wyss Institute researchers and clinical research team members based at Dana-Farber.



Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Benjamin Boettner,, +1 617-432-8232

Harvard Office of Technology Development
Caroline Perry,, +1 617-495-4157

Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Paul Karoff,, +1 617-496-0450


Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Seth Kroll,, +1 617-432-7758

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University uses Nature's design principles to develop bioinspired materials and devices that will transform medicine and create a more sustainable world. Wyss researchers are developing innovative new engineering solutions for healthcare, energy, architecture, robotics, and manufacturing that are translated into commercial products and therapies through collaborations with clinical investigators, corporate alliances, and formation of new startups. The Wyss Institute creates transformative technological breakthroughs by engaging in high risk research, and crosses disciplinary and institutional barriers, working as an alliance that includes Harvard's Schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences and Design, and in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Boston University, Tufts University, Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin, University of Zurich and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences serves as the connector and integrator of Harvard's teaching and research efforts in engineering, applied sciences, and technology. Through collaboration with researchers from all parts of Harvard, other universities, and corporate and foundational partners, we bring discovery and innovation directly to bear on improving human life and society.

Harvard Office of Technology Development (OTD) promotes the public good by fostering innovation and translating new inventions made at Harvard University into useful products that are available and beneficial to society. Our integrated approach to technology development comprises sponsored research and corporate alliances, intellectual property management, and technology commercialization through venture creation and licensing. To bridge the academic-industry development gap, Harvard OTD also manages the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator and the Physical Sciences & Engineering Accelerator.

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