Flash mobbing adoptive T cell therapy


Here’s the basic idea behind adoptive T cell therapy: Patients whose cancers don’t respond to conventional treatments can have some of their own immune cells known as T cells plucked, genetically re-engineered to better target their cancer cells, and reinserted. In recent years these treatments have achieved dramatic early clinical successes, and there’s a lot of excitement about them.

This excitement made adoptive T cell therapy a prime candidate for the third annual Biology Flash Mob at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, which drew about 180 volunteers on Friday morning.

We volunteers were a diverse group—by a show of hands, one third of us worked at Koch and one third had never heard of the institute—and several of us were only two years old.

Our Koch hosts divided us into groups of healthy cells (green shirts), cancer cells (red shirts), T cells (blue shirts) and scientists (purple shirts and white lab coats). After a quick rehearsal, the healthy cells marched out and arranged themselves in the center of the quad behind the Koch. They cheered as the T cells filed through them and kept them in line. When one healthy cell popped a red umbrella to show that it had turned cancerous, the T cells took their pom-poms and pummeled it into submission.

But then several healthy cells not only broke bad but hid themselves from the T cells (as real cancer cells do all too often), the T cells wandered around in helpless zombie fashion and dozens of other cancer cells poured in.

Virtue triumphed, however, after the T cells hurried out to be genetically re-engineered (fortified for battle with big foam hands). They charged back into the mass of cancer cells, and swiftly demolished all the bad guys.

The flash mob ended with loud cheers, even from the cancer cells. And we hoped that the cheers will keep echoing in the real world of cancer medicine.

A video of the flash mob will be posted in coming weeks. Meanwhile, you can view the 2012 Koch flash mob, which acted out a targeted cancer therapy technique based on nanoparticles, here.

Photo courtesy Koch Institute for Integrative Research on Cancer at MIT.

Rockets away!

Saturday’s Science Carnival, by far the Cambridge Science Festival’s largest event, was a great success. The Festival now fills Cambridge high school’s huge main gym plus a basketball gym plus the tennis courts just outside with a remarkable range of mostly interactive science exhibits and completely enthusiastic proponents. Thousands of families came, and not just for the wildly popular robot zoo. I enjoyed volunteering, mostly helping exhibitors carry in their wares—everything from human-size chess pieces to kites to amazingly complicated robot prototypes. I ended up with a stint helping Terry Murray (the Inventor Mentor) launch rockets on the high school’s sunny front lawn. Young kids and their parents got a big kick out of launching water-bottle rockets with stuffed animals on top. So did I.

Big research ideas in five minutes

The Cambridge Science Festival’s launch event, Big Ideas for Busy People, presented quick snapshots of recent work by 10 researchers “who are established stars or stars on the rise,” noted John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and the festival.

The topics ranged from disaster preparedness to the rise of atmospheric oxygen and from dancing with bionics to how today’s slot machines are designed to addict their patrons. Each researcher raced to summarize their ideas and results as a five-minute clock ticked down, and then answered thoughtful questions from an audience of hundreds in First Parish Church on Friday evening.

Some notes and quotes:

“Why do we so often make decisions that we later regret?” asked Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert. “We have a fundamental misperception of time; we will change much more than we predict. It’s an illusion we all have—that we’ve just become the people we will be for the rest of our lives.”

“The bad news is yes, there are more disasters and the impact of disasters is increasing,” said Paul Biddinger of Massachusetts General Hospital. Working to minimize their effect, “we’ve learned what works and doesn’t work, and what does work is practice, practice, practice.”

Lawrence Candell of MIT Lincoln Labs showed a visual surveillance system under development that integrates 48 cell-phone-like video cameras to provide powerful 360-degree images and can automatically follow items such as moving cars. As such systems become commercialized, they could find many uses beyond surveillance, for instance at sport arenas such as the Boston Garden. “You could film and watch your own Boston Celtics game,” with the ability to narrow in on the actions and players that interest you most, Candell remarked.

Elliott Rouse of the MIT Media Lab described the development of a bionic ankle for Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost part of her lower leg in last year’s Boston Marathon attack, and showed a video of her dancing again. “We can put people back in places they thought they’d never have again,” Rouse said. “It’s only a matter of time until bionic limbs are better than the ones we have.”

Harvard’s Tadashi Tokieda demonstrated a “chain fountain”—pull a thin chain out of a plastic cup and let go of the chain and it will flow up before turning back down again—and explained a likely mechanism with a stick. “I like to explore surprises that are amusing and interesting to non-scientists and scientists,” he added. Asked where he finds such surprises, Tokieda said they are everywhere around: “There’s an enormous amount of universe.”

Many Boston-area plants now blossom 10 days or more earlier than they did in the 1850s, according to records kept by Henry David Thoreau and others, said Boston University’s Richard Primack. Bees and butterlies also often emerge much earlier in the spring, but migrating birds often arrive only a few days earlier than they did back then. These changes in schedule raise worries that “birds could miss this great pulse of insects in the spring,” he pointed out.

Amanda Randles of Lawrence Livermore Labs presented work that models the fluid dynamics of blood plasma with the movement of red blood cells to help study cardiovascular disease for individual patients using their MRI and CT scans. Such an analysis currently takes hours on one of the world’s largest supercomputers, but she hopes that within a few years, “it becomes something physicians can do on a real-time basis in the office.”

“I don’t know why we long so for permanence, given the fleeting nature of things,” remarked MIT’s Alan Lightman. “Our consciousness makes us feel we are immortal beings,” he added. “Yet Nature is screaming at us as the top of her lungs that everything is passing fast.”

And MIT’s Tanja Bosak skimmed through the mysterious multi-billion-year timeline in which Earth’s oxygen levels rose from almost nothing, noting that jellyfish-like fossils gave one indication of their rise as of 560 million years ago. “If you ask me why we have 20% oxygen in today’s atmosphere, I have no idea,” she acknowledged.

All the speakers seemed to enjoy their ten minutes of public science fame.

Let the wild science rumpus begin!

The eighth annual Cambridge Science Festival begins a week from today, with events throughout eastern Massachusetts. The program kicks off on the evening of Friday the 18th with Big Ideas for Busy People, a series of five-minute talks by prominent and soon-to-be-prominent researchers. (I love the time constraints, first encountered in the wonderful IgNobel ceremonies and a boon to those of us who have suffered through far too many droning PowerPoints.) The following day I’m volunteering at the Science Festival, truly a wild rumpus. And I hope to see as many other events as possible, especially the Koch Institute’s cancer immunotherapy flash mob, the MIT AeroAstro open house, 3D printing of ship hull models from the MIT Museum collection, the grand finale of the autonomous fighting robots challenge, an interactive talk on the science of Jello, and of course the Attack of the Robomonkeys.