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Amin Aalipour

Stanford University

Immunotherapy has rapidly become one of the most promising fields of cancer treatment —  but its use has so far been limited to cancers of the blood and bone marrow, or “liquid tumors.” 

Making immunotherapy work for solid tumors is a mission for Amin Aalipour, who is nearing the end of an M.D./Ph.D. program at Stanford University. 

“I love the creativity with synthetic biology. If you don’t have a tool, go out and build it.”

As a medical trainee, Aalipour has seen firsthand the need for new therapies as he cares for patients who haven’t responded to other treatments. 

“That feeling of frustration is a big driver of wanting to take a different approach,” Aalipour said.  

The problem was made more real when Aalipour’s Ph.D. adviser, a physician-scientist who worked on early cancer detection, died of glioblastoma in July. “None of the resources available to him were able to stop [the cancer],” Aalipour said. “It only solidifies how tough a problem we’re going after.”

Aalipour, also a synthetic biology researcher, is looking to tackle that problem by developing engineered immune cells. In a paper last year, he and his colleagues described fashioning a cancer-detecting sensor out of a type of white blood cell. In colorectal and breast cancer models, the engineered cells migrated to where the cancer cells were and signaled the presence of tumors, even tiny ones.

“I love the creativity with synthetic biology,” he said. “If you don’t have a tool, go out and build it.”

Aalipour is also involved in several other projects, including developing cancer-killing viruses to go after solid tumors. A long-term goal: engineering immune cells that can continuously monitor and detect diseases for a long time, like a secondary immune system.

“Whatever therapies we have for cancer continue to fall off the cliff,” Aalipour said. “We need something more permanent.”

— Shraddha Chakradhar