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A Future in Medicine
Center for Soft Materials Immunology investigates new therapies to combat disease
UMass Professors Gregory Tew, Barbara Osborne, Samuel Black, and Maria Santore.

Gregory Tew, Barbara Osborne, Samuel Black, and Maria Santore believe controlling the immune system is the future of medicine.

Google the phrase “soft materials immunology” and you’re likely to come up short of a match. It’s a life sciences field so new that the three words aren’t yet commonly combined. But this marriage of polymer science and immunology holds great promise for developing new ways to treat and prevent disease and, according to Gregory Tew, polymer science, the greatest concentration of intellectual power in soft materials immunology (SMI) is right here at UMass Amherst.

“Imagine being able to program your immune system to treat cancer or eliminate autoimmune diseases without the use of drugs or therapies that destroy healthy cells,” says Tew. Through combining the work of polymer scientists in soft materials with immunologists’ knowledge of immune cells, biologically compatible synthetic materials can be developed that allow the body’s own cellular mechanisms and pathways to be used to naturally manipulate immune response for a specific, targeted purpose.

Soft materials immunology is growing in importance, says Tew, as the two fields have made significant scientific progress recently. Immunologist have identified many of the receptors, regulatory proteins, and signaling components that mediate communication among cells of the immune system, but few practical therapies have been  developed to exploit this vast resource of knowledge. What has held back progress is finding successful methods for manipulating these pathways. “As biological  scientists we know how immune cells work, but we don’t know how to access the immune cells and deliver desired payloads to them,” says Barbara Osborne, veterinary  and animal sciences, whose work on infectious disease forms part of the foundation for the campus’s soft materials immunology center. “That’s where the polymer  scientists can help,” she adds. 

In the past, the materials developed for cell entry weren’t very effective at navigating biopathways, says Tew, and the chance for things to go wrong was significant. Tew’s group has developed a game-changer, a biofriendly polymer material that mimics natural viral sequences for cell entry and delivery. Unlike a virus that delivers a disease-causing payload, such as HIV, these new materials will deliver helpful payloads to the cells—proteins and substances that control the immune system in advantageous ways, such as turning it up to naturally fight cancer or turning it down in the case of autoimmune diseases in which the body’s immune response is in overdrive. “Our polymer materials are allowing immunologists to study the immune system and its role in preventing and treating disease in new and exciting ways,” says Tew. “Look around the globe and you’ll find UMass Amherst is one of very few institutions conducting this work,” he adds.

The campus received seed funding through the UMass President’s Office Science and Technology Fund to further this work and to strengthen collaborations with both the UMass Medical school and the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute. “We are working with faculty in infectious disease at UMass Worcester through the UMass Center for Clinical and translational Sciences or CCTS,” says Tew. The UMass CCTS, which is part of a national consortium of centers, helps faculty across the UMass system to work together more productively and to enhance the public’s health by moving laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients.

Karen Hayes '85