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grad students using an automated multiphoton microscope
February 3, 2022

New collaborative research center to provide clearer image of tumor microenvironment

Written By: Tom Ziemer


Immunotherapies, in which care teams harness and augment patients’ immune systems to battle diseases, have emerged as promising treatments for a range of cancers. Yet their effectiveness remains largely blunted in solid tumors—a roadblock that a group of biomedical engineers and cancer researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota hope to overcome through a new research collaboration.

Kevin Eliceiri, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and medical physics at UW-Madison, and Paolo Provenzano (PhDBME ’03), an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota, will lead the Center for Multiparametric Imaging of Tumor Immune Microenvironments, funded by a five-year, $6.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

Kevin Eliceiri
Kevin Eliceiri

The collaboration aims to inform new immunotherapy designs and strategies by developing, testing and deploying an integrated toolkit of imaging and data analysis technologies, shared across institutional lines. By applying advanced optical imaging, nano- and microfabrication and biophysical modeling techniques specifically to solid tumor microenvironments and studying how they influence immune function, Eliceiri hopes the team can unlock new solutions for therapies.

“We’re realizing that the microenvironment matters a lot in cancer invasion and progression,” says Eliceiri, a leader in developing imaging hardware and software for cell biology applications. “So instead of imaging that takes cells out of the natural context and puts them flat on glass, we want to look at environments that are more natural and we want to be more holistic in our imaging, where we track the microenvironment plus all the cell types, not just the cancer cells themselves.”

The UW-Madison group, which also includes Biomedical Engineering Professors Paul Campagnola and Melissa Skala and Assistant Professor Suzanne Ponik from the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology, will handle the technology development side of the project.

For Eliceiri’s research group, that will include further developing a suite of machine-learning-based tools for studying the microenvironment; building hardware that allows for label-free imaging of fibers of collagen (a prevalent connective tissue component that plays a key role in cancer metastasis) in commonly used pathologist’s microscopes; and honing a system capable of measuring the dynamic “fingerprint” of metabolism in cancer cells. Skala will add her expertise in metabolic imaging techniques, while Campagnola has pioneered ways of translating collagen imaging to fabrication, allowing the group to 3D print biologically relevant scaffolds for therapeutic testing. Ponik, an expert in engineered and in vivo tumor microenvironment models, will help evaluate the new technologies.

The UW-Madison researchers will then share their technology with the team at Minnesota, a group of 13 investigators who will test it all while studying glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer, and pancreatic cancer.

“We are extremely excited to launch this collaborative center and work to define physical and chemical barriers to effective antitumor immune response and immunotherapies using state-of-the-art imaging. The structure of this center is particularly satisfying, considering the longstanding collaborations between Kevin and me, and my history with the UW Department of Biomedical Engineering,” says Provenzano, who in 2003 was the fifth student to graduate from UW-Madison’s biomedical engineering PhD program.

The University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center and the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center are providing additional funding for the effort, which Eliceiri says will allow the center to connect with even more collaborators on both campuses.

“We always want to advance the technologies available to our cancer research community,” says Eliceiri. “By the end of the grant, our tools will be better, they’ll be vetted by collaborative cancer biology projects, but also our tools will be present in Minnesota for continued use. Everyone’s research goals are benefited this way. It’s a very synergistic collaboration.”

Kevin Eliceiri holds the Retina Research Foundation Walter H. Helmerich Research Chair through the McPherson Eye Research Institute at UW-Madison and directs the Center for Quantitative Cell Imaging in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education. Paul Campagnola is the Peter Tong Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Melissa Skala holds the Retina Research Foundation Daniel M. Albert Chair through the McPherson Eye Research Institute.

Professors Skala and Eliceiri are also investigators at the Morgridge Institute for Research, which is home to the FabLab, a partner in the instrumentation development goals of the grant.