UMass Amherst College of Engineering
Honors and Awards

College of Engineering’s Liu and Atukorale Receive NIH Trailblazer Awards

A UMass Amherst engineering researcher developing brain implants inspired by a “Terminator” movie and a biomedical engineer working to create a cancer vaccine are recipients of Trailblazer R21 Awards from the National Institutes of Health.

T. Leo Liu, assistant professor, mechanical and industrial engineering, and Prabhani Atukorale, assistant professor, biomedical engineering, will each receive $400,000 over three years to investigate a topic that is exploratory, developmental, proof of concept or high-risk/high-impact.

Teo Liu standing in front of a microscope in his lab
T. Leo Liu

Liu will use his award to develop the next generation of brain-computer interfacing with liquid metal enabled soft neural probes that, because they are flexible and elastic, minimize an immune response.

In current neural probe designs, the incompatibility between the softness and movement of the brain and the rigid bioelectric devices creates several issues. Common hard devices can inflict injuries in the implant area, which stimulates the body’s immune response to contain the foreign body, masking the probe’s signals. Also, because the probe is anchored to the skull while the brain tissue constantly moves, researchers can’t reliably tap into the same neurons or track the same circuit over time.

“That mismatch becomes the biggest challenge in having these devices recording stable signals in the brain for a long time,” Liu explains. “We’re trying to overcome this challenge by developing a completely soft neural probe.”

The new probes will aim to be flexible and stretchable, potentially grow and shrink with the brain and have adaptive stiffness, meaning it will be rigid upon implantation and soften after implantation.

Liu proposes using metals that are liquid at body temperature, namely gallium. “We can cool it down below its melting point so it can be solidified liquid metal and turn into a stiff probe that can be used just as the rigid neural probes that have been using for decades,” he explains. “But after it’s implanted into the human body, which is 37 degrees Celsius, it will turn back into a liquid so you would have a tissue-like device inside of the brain.”

His inspiration: the shapeshifting robots in the “Terminator” films. “It’s quite fascinating when you see these robots getting melted and then reformed. And the key for that is liquid metal.”

Ultimately, Liu hopes that these probes’ flexibility, elasticity and longevity can open new research opportunities in studying neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Prabhani Atukorale
Prabhani Atukorale

Atukorale will devote her Trailblazer award to her research to develop a new method of cancer vaccination by delivering a three-drug “super-adjuvant” using nanomaterials-based carriers.

An adjuvant is a substance in a vaccine that tells your body to mount an immune response. “Normally, these adjuvant molecules don’t like to be [mixed] with each other because they are physically distinct, which adds to the delivery hurdles,” she says. “But when we encapsulate them in the right material, you can deliver all three of them to the same target cell.”

Also, the “smart” drug delivery approaches using nanomaterials means that this vaccine goes directly to the tumor, unlike current vaccines that must be directed to the lymph nodes. Unlike standard vaccines, which are a combination of adjuvant and antigen, this strategy has no antigen. Instead, the shedding tumor provides the antigens, enabling a highly personalized response, even without knowledge of the antigen.

“You saw with Covid, we were scrambling for vaccines because the virus was mutating,” Atukorale says. “Cancer also mutates rapidly. Even if you have identical twins that develop tumors with a genetic basis, those tumors can be vastly different simply because of the way they mutate in each individual.” When the antigen comes from the tumor itself, you get highly effective personalized medicine.

Going directly to the tumor also helps circumnavigate a tumor’s immunosuppressive microenvironment, which is critical for aggressive tumors, such as triple-negative breast cancer.

“Effective vaccination as you can imagine has the potential to completely transform the paradigm of cancer treatment,” she says. “In our view, harnessing innate immunity using rational, “smart” therapeutics that use nanomaterials and multi-agonist methods, are really going to be at the forefront of cancer therapy.”

Atukorale’s biomedical engineering lab is part of UMass Amherst that is located at UMass Chan Medical School. “Biomedical engineering is pioneering this effort of bridging engineering and medicine,” she says. “And it really is the vast array of shared resources within this two-campus ecosystem that is available to us as cancer nanotechnologists and immunotherapists that we are really banking on for the success of this work.”