Award-winning cancer research starts small

Weiqiang Chen is studying cancer and other diseases using lab-on-a-chip technology, creating personalized treatments for patients.

Treating cancer means learning about cancer — how tumors begin, how they grow, and how they spread. For Weiqiang Chen, studying such a big problem requires starting small — the size of a chip.

Chen is associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and a faculty member of the NYU Langone Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Cancer Center, has helped develop a method to study certain kinds of cancer in an engineered environment — a “cancer-on-a-chip” that can provide an easy way to study how aggressive cancers act under the normal conditions of the humans body, and provide a window to how cancers might be treated in the future.

Chen earned his B.S. in Physics from Nanjing University in 2005 and his M.S. degrees from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2008 and Purdue University in 2009, both in Electrical Engineering. He earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 2014. But at NYU Tandon, he’s working on biomedical engineering, where his technology is being used to improve human health.

The cancer-on-a-chip technology can mimic the specific tissue environment of a patient who is affected by a type of cancer, using the cancer cells from their own body. Then specific treatments can be tested on the chip, to ensure that they might be helpful in the body writ large. This removes some of the risk of treatment — making sure that the therapy will do more good than harm in a specific patient. They can also study the specific immune response that the body is likely to initiate, giving more data that a physician can use to suggest a treatment regimen.

The idea for a cancer-on-a-chip came from the limitations of current disease models. Recreating the human immune environment in current animal-based cancer models is challenging, and discrepancies between preclinical and clinical results have raised concerns about how the findings from the current models can be translated to patients. 

The engineered tumor model on chips can be an alternative to the current animal models and patient studies, and even achieve a so-called "clinical trial on chips" for a pre-screening of patients suitable for immunotherapy. This system allows longitudinal analysis of cells to understand how the environment around a tumor changes the way that the affected cells act during immunotherapy.

For his advancements of the technologies, Chen has received a number of awards. In January, he received the 2021 Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering Rising Star Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society. This is just the latest in a string of awards, including the 2019 Chroma Young Investigator Award in Biomedical Engineering, the 2019 NIH Outstanding Investigator Award, the 2018 National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Trailblazer Award and many others. His work on cancer-on-a-chip technology has been widely cited.

Chen has also earned two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a new biosensor to examine T-cells engineered with special proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). These engineered lymphocytes are able to target biomarkers for B cells, including neoplastic mutations typical of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The goal is to understand factors that hinder cytokine signaling, or “crosstalk” between these CAR-T and leukemia cells during this process. The results could make it possible for clinicians to design personalized treatments for individual patients.

In Chen’s lab, the next goal is to bring this into clinical settings. Once these personalized chips can become widespread, it can result in personalized treatments that will begin to tackle cancer at the individual level.