Antibodies attacking a cancer cell

ADVANCE Research Will Develop Tool to Reverse Immunosuppression

December 18, 2020

The University of Massachusetts Amherst ADVANCE Program has awarded a competitive collaborative research seed grant to Assistant Professor Michelle Farkas of the Chemistry Department and Associate Professor Shelly Peyton of the Chemical Engineering Department. Their ADVANCE research will develop a new tool for studying, stopping, and reversing the immunosuppression of the immune system in patients with cancer and other diseases. 


Competitive ADVANCE grants aim to foster the development of innovative and equitable collaborative research projects among faculty.  

As the ADVANCE website observes about these grants funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF), “Recognizing longstanding gender gaps in the academy, the NSF funds universities to build institutional transformation programs in order to advance gender equity for faculty in science and engineering. Through the power of collaboration, ADVANCE cultivates faculty equity and inclusion—especially for women and minorities in science and engineering.”  

The ADVANCE project being carried out by Farkas and Peyton is titled “Lighting Up Macrophages in Three-Dimensional Tissues.”  

As Farkas and Peyton explain, macrophages are unique cells that can both activate and suppress the immune system by rapidly switching between states that either stimulate or suppress it. However, the balance between these states can be disrupted in cancer and other diseases, which can be disastrous for patients, but also present targets for treatment.  

“There is a critical need for tools to study this interconversion, information vital to being able to stop or reverse immunosuppression,” as Farkas and Peyton say.  

During their collaborative ADVANCE research, Farkas will develop real-time fluorescent reporters of macrophages to track their changes, while Peyton will then use these reporters in three-dimensional tissue culture models, which mimic the tumor microenvironment, to visualize and quantify macrophage-tumor interactions.  

This work represents the first use of macrophage-based reporters, and the first instance of real-time tracking of macrophage states in a multi-component system.  

“While fluorescent reporters themselves are not a new approach,” say Farkas and Peyton, “their application in this manner is vastly different from those of others. By being able to directly visualize the interconversion of macrophages between [the stimulating and suppressing] phenotypes, the team can for the first time study this process and the conditions under which it occurs in a spatially and temporally resolved manner, leading to new treatment strategies.”

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Three Teams Awarded 2020-21 ADVANCE Collaborative Research Seed Grants

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