A research center based at the University of Kansas that develops rapid next-generation tests for COVID-19 and other human ailments recently earned $6.6 million in continued funding over the next five years from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) as a National Biotechnology Resource (P41) Center.
The Center of BioModular Multi-Scale Systems for Precision Medicine, dubbed CBM2, takes small plastic chips made of the same material as a compact disc and transforms them into marvels of engineering and chemistry that quickly can detect hard-to-diagnose human diseases using saliva, urine or blood from a patient. The liquid biopsies can detect circulating tumor cells, cell-free DNA, viruses and vesicles that are released by biological cells associated with a particular disease.
The technology honed at KU and partner institutions is pushing forward the boundaries of precision medicine, improving and extending the lives of patients, and creating commercialization partnerships as well as new training and education opportunities in the Lawrence-Kansas City region and beyond.
“We develop little $2 widgets made from a plastic by injection molding that can take a liquid biopsy sample and search for different types of markers that can help a physician manage disease,” said CBM2 director Steven Soper, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering, who brought the center to KU when he was recruited from the University of North Carolina in 2016. “To give you an example, this little chip is used to isolate tumor cells out of the blood of cancer patients. A physician will take a sample of blood from the patient, put it into the chip to enrich the tumor cells from the blood sample — there's very few of them, maybe about 10 or so — and then we open those cells to look at the genetic composition to help decide: does the patient have a disease, how to treat the disease, is the patient responding to therapy?”
Of the 50 P41 centers, CBM2 is the only one based in an NIH IDeA (Institutional Development Awards) state — a designation for states that historically have received lower amounts of NIH funding.
“Most of these biotechnology resource centers, as with all big projects, are on either coast,” Soper said. “We’re the only biotechnology resource center that's funded in an IDeA state, so that’s a big hooray for Kansas and KU — all major NIH centers have high visibility, so we have a very important mission because we're the only center of these 50 that has these technologies and we’re filling an important niche within the NIH community.”
Much of the work of CBM2 takes place in collaboration with partners that include KU Medical Center (Andrew Godwin, CBM2 co-director), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (Dr. David Kaufman, CBM2 co-director), Louisiana State University (professors Sunggook Park and Michael C. Murphy) and the Wake Forest School of Medicine (professor Adam Hall).
For instance, at KU Medical Center, Godwin — who also serves as deputy director of The University of Kansas Cancer Center and director of Kansas Institute for Precision Medicine COBRE — and Soper are working to develop a handheld instrument to spot viruses giving rise to COVID-19 and to detect ovarian cancer early in women with a high family risk. This kind of cancer detection uses a few blood drops placed on a plastic chip created by the center to look for very small vesicles — the presence of which indicates early stage of cancer that will provide better survival compared to current diagnostic methods.
“The CBM2 is an essential component of our collaborative efforts to develop a stand-alone Precision Medicine Institute at the University of Kansas,” Godwin said. “I’m pleased to serve as the co-director for this P41 Center and have been excited to work with an extremely talented and creative team of bioengineers at KU, LSU, UNC and Wake Forest who are developing cutting-edge technologies to help advance the future of health care.”
The medical advances developed at CBM2 already are helping patients through commercial partnerships with private firms like San Diego-based BioFluidica, which markets instruments for the isolation and analysis of liquid biopsy markers. Some of these products already are in use at the KU Cancer Center to improve outcomes of cancer patients in Kansas as well as those across the U.S.
“I want to congratulate Drs. Soper and Godwin for the renewal of the CBM2 P41 grant,” said Dr. Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center. “This funding provides critical infrastructure support to our research efforts focused on developing new and improved detection systems for biomarkers in cancer and other diseases. This renewal will go a long way towards further enhancing our correlative science capabilities and places us at the cutting edge of molecular diagnostics and precision medicine research.”
For example, CBM2 is working with KUMC’s Dr. Anup Kasi on clinical trials at the KU Cancer Center to evaluate new therapeutics for pancreatic cancer, which accounts for 7% of cancer deaths across the U.S. The circulating tumor cells are secured from a blood sample using a plastic microchip pioneered by the CBM2 and marketed by BioFluidica.
Other important research initiatives include a project with Dr. Alison Baird of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City on a test using small vesicles as markers for a point-of-care test for diagnosing ischemic stroke. The test can be completed in about 30 minutes to help decide how best to treat patients with stroke. In another effort, CBM2 is developing a new nanotechnology platform for sequencing RNA and DNA to detect changes to the RNA genome of viruses that give rise to variants, such as those associated with COVID-19.
“This exciting technology has the potential to improve and save lives, and this NIH funding renewal is both an endorsement of its value and a catalyst for its continued development and expansion,” said Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research on KU’s Lawrence campus. “Dr. Soper and his team are passionate about this work, and their energy and expertise continue to attract the kind of federal and private investment that will allow KU researchers to build on their discoveries for years to come — benefiting patients while strengthening the Kansas economy.”
In addition to training students at KU and partner institutions, CBM2 is educating the general public and a generation of K-16 students in the multidisciplinary research behind the technologies developed at the center. Małgorzata Witek, associate research professor of chemistry at KU, is leading the effort to teach students to appreciate concepts such as precision medicine and sense-of-scale, as well as the valuable contributions engineers provide to medicine. Witek and her team reach more than 500 students annually. The center also works with Sharp Hub IDeA states to share its experiences in creating infrastructure to improve research competitiveness nationally in these states.