The Creation of Bioengineering at Moffitt

By Corrie Pellegrino - December 07, 2023

Imagine that a biopsy from one patient could be used to create thousands of microtumors. Each microtumor could be the basis for a different experiment, identifying what pathways could be targeted and which therapies are most effective to treat the cancer. This accelerated level of research could spur breakthrough discoveries in cellular therapies and other next-generation cancer treatments.

The potential for such research has become a reality at Moffitt Cancer Center with the launch of the Department of Bioengineering in April 2023. A first for a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, the Bioengineering Department puts the tools and perspectives of engineers to work on the problems of cancer.

After her appointment to associate center director in January 2022, Flores convened an advisory board of thought leaders in bioengineering from across the country to advise her on key areas of focus for the new department.
After her appointment to associate center director in January 2022, Elsa Flores, Ph.D., convened an advisory board of thought leaders in bioengineering from across the country to advise her on key areas of focus for the new department.

“There is so much excitement about this new initiative at Moffitt,” said Elsa Flores, Ph.D., associate center director for Basic Science at Moffitt. “A lot of the reason that cancer therapy fails is because it’s so nonspecific. It makes the patient sick because it’s systemic. So being able to pinpoint therapies to the right place, we hope engineers can help us with that. We have plans to recruit engineers from a variety of disciplines working on innovative research in drug delivery, material design and manufacturing, imaging, and 3D modeling.”

With a degree in chemical engineering, Flores has had a vision for many decades for how bioengineering could help further cancer research. After her appointment to associate center director in January 2022, she convened an advisory board of thought leaders in bioengineering from across the country to advise her on key areas of focus for the new department. In February 2023, the cancer center hosted the Bioengineering at Moffitt summit, which drew experts in engineering and cancer to Tampa to discuss the vision for the department and how it could shape cancer research. It wasn’t long before the department was ready to launch.

In April 2023, Greg Sawyer, Ph.D., was recruited as the department’s inaugural chair and chief bioengineering officer. Sawyer had started his career as a mechanical engineer, working early on as part of the NASA team that designed the original Mars rover. He shifted his research focus from space to cancer in 2013 after receiving his own cancer diagnosis. He now uses his engineering skills to develop ways to 3D model, grow and study cancer tumors in hopes of improving diagnosis, disease management and therapeutic options.

“Dr. Sawyer is the perfect person to lead this new department at Moffitt. Bioengineering will be a new driver of innovation for our cancer center, and his expertise in mechanical engineering will interface with and transform the current expertise at the cancer center in cancer biology, drug discovery and immunology to bring new therapeutic strategies to our patients more quickly,” Flores said.

The new department is collaborating with Moffitt researchers and clinicians in a range of areas to provide 3D modeling of cancer, allowing researchers to quickly reproduce and study samples from patients. It also arms researchers with innovative microscopic imaging, enabling scientists to closely observe the 3D cancer models. To bolster imaging capabilities, Moffitt has also become home to a Nikon Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art facility with advanced imaging technologies.

With the ability to produce and observe thousands of microtumor samples from one patient biopsy, researchers can test the effectiveness of individual therapies at an unprecedented scale.

portrait of blockquote author

"As bioengineers, we can build tools to accelerate cancer discovery by studying cancer outside the body so that we can examine it and find ways to stop it."

- Greg Sawyer, Ph.D., Chair, Chief Bioengineering Officer

“Bioengineering, in part, differs from traditional cancer modeling because it affords us the opportunity to study tumors in real time in 3D outside of the body,” Sawyer explained. “Cells within a tumor are communicating with each other and with the surrounding healthy tissue. To survive, cancer cells rewire various processes. As bioengineers, we can build tools to accelerate cancer discovery by studying cancer outside the body so that we can examine it and find ways to stop it.”

The Bioengineering Department will be one of the key Basic Science departments at Moffitt’s Center for Innovation on the new SPEROS FL campus. Flores expects the new department, which will bring together experts from different disciplines, will lead to unique discoveries and opportunities for the cancer center.

Contact the Author

Corrie Pellegrino Senior Managing Editor 813-745-0833 More Articles

Subscribe

Most Popular