The School of Engineering welcomes a new professor

Using smart materials to strengthen the immune system

The Institute of Materials and the Interfaculty Institute of Bioengineering are pleased to welcome a talented new professor specializing in immunoengineering and immunotherapy. He develops smart biomaterials that help the immune system fight diseases like cancer and HIV as well as autoimmune diseases. 

The School of Engineering was joined over the summer by Li Tang, a tenure track assistant professor coming straight from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He works in the Institute of Bioengineering on immunoengineering and immunotherapy. This is a relatively new area of research that involves the administration of substances capable of stimulating a patient’s immune system to help fight disease.

Limiting side effects and improving treatments
In his interdisciplinary lab, Li Tang is developing smart biomaterials that release drugs at targeted sites. The aim is to stimulate the immune system in a highly controlled way and help it battle cancer, infectious diseases like HIV and autoimmune diseases.

"With current treatments, drugs work their way through the body before reaching their target, and this can cause side effects or even toxic effects," said the professor. "By delivering the substance only to cancerous cells, for example, we can minimize the negative effects and further stimulate the body’s immune defenses in a tissue-specific way. We can also ensure the immune system is not over- or under-stimulated."

Smart materials that release drugs on demand
To make biomaterials that contain drugs, Li Tang uses polymers and nanoparticles, to which ligands (e.g. antibodies) are grafted. These ligands are designed to attach only to sick cells or tissue. Once anchored at the right spot, these materials deliver the substance they are carrying. "We use an external or internal process to trigger the release," said the professor. "We can, for example, project light on the particle using a laser to disintegrate the container. But it is also possible to program the material to open up when the pH changes or when it detects a reaction by the immune system. We also have to be sure our materials break down in the body and can be evacuated once they have completed their mission."

At this point, the professor has already tested his materials in the lab and on animals. He would like to be able to study their effects on humans in several years’ time. "On the medical side, I hope to collaborate with the University of Lausanne, the University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV), the Ludwig Center for Cancer Research, as well as pharmaceutical companies. I also plan to take advantage of EPFL’s centers and to collaborate as much as possible with labs associated with the School of Engineering and the School of Life Sciences. EPFL is extremely dynamic, and the equipment is capable of cutting-edge research."

The professor is still looking for Bachelor’s and Master’s students for his lab, which is at the crossroads of materials science and life sciences.

Short bio:
Li Tang is from China and received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Peking University before completing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (USA). For his dissertation, he studied the release of optimally sized nanomedicines for fighting cancer. He did his postdoctoral research at MIT in the field of cancer immunotherapy (at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research). He has thus been trained in chemistry, materials science and engineering and immunology. He joined EPFL in August 2016 as a tenure track assistant professor.