Translating his research into clinical practice
Nicholas Boyd (BMatEng 2009, PhD 2016) can easily pinpoint the moment that defined his career. He’d been leaning towards aerospace until, in a first-year lecture, he’d encountered an awe-inspiring video on hip replacement surgery. This changed everything. Suddenly he saw himself pursuing an exciting career in biomaterials.
“Observing this surgical procedure was an intense experience, and the notion of engineering materials that could withstand the biological loads made a big impression,” shares Nicholas. “But what really pulled me in was the potential for designing new materials and finding new approaches that could eliminate the surgery altogether.”
After completing his PhD thesis on bone regeneration, Nicholas accepted a postdoctoral research fellowship at Cartherics, a Melbourne biotechnology company. “We’re creating an ‘off-the-shelf’ cancer treatment that harnesses our natural killing machine: the immune system,” reveals Nicholas. “We hope to develop an immunotherapy that can be used by a large number and variety of cancer patients.”
Using the patient’s own blood, the immune system’s T cells can be genetically engineered to express a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) targeting a specific cancer. These “CAR-T cells” are then expanded and injected back into the patient to detect and kill the relevant cancer cells. “The results are absolutely astonishing,” says Nicholas. “We’re talking complete cure of patients with various types of leukaemia.” But there’s a price tag of $400,000 to $500,000 per treatment…
Consequently, Nicholas and his colleagues are now exploring a less expensive, available-on-demand approach using stem cells from donors with a tissue type compatible with a large portion of the population. “We gene edit the CAR into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – stem cells that can be generated directly from adult cells,” he explains. “In order for the iPSCs to then kill cancer, we need to convert them into T cells. That’s the focus of my work.”
Looking beyond his own research, Nicholas is wowed by the work of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. Because animal models don’t accurately mimic human pathophysiology, researchers there have developed microchips that simulate human organ function. “The 'organ-on-a-chip' is seriously cool,” he raves. “The Wyss team has now hooked up multiple chips to see how a treatment affects not only the organ of interest, but the rest of the body. Amazing stuff!”
When asked where he’s headed in his career, Nicholas replies, “I'm strongly driven towards the translation of a research breakthrough into a tangible product actually used in the clinic.” And no doubt he’s nearly there.
“Keep asking questions,” advises Nicholas. “It doesn't matter if it’s the person sitting next to you or some almighty CEO or world leader in your field. Push boundaries. Give your idea a shot.”