Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and Rice University saw survival rates for mice with head and neck cancer improve dramatically after the animals were injected with a slow-release, drug-loaded hydrogel that spurs the immune system to attack malignant tumors.  Results of the study appeared in the journal Biomaterials earlier this year.

UTHealth Assistant Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Simon Young, DDS, MD, PhD, and Rice University chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink, PhD, used a multi-domain peptide gel to deliver ADU-S100, a new type of immunotherapy drug from a class of “stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists.” Young and Hartgerink call the drug-gel combination “STINGel.” A patent is pending and will be shared by UTHealth and Rice.

“Normally, if you don’t treat mice with tumors, they die in about three weeks,” Young said. “After we injected STINGel, amazingly, 80 percent of our mice remained alive and tumor-free."

The mice were still doing well at the 100th day, when they were again injected with cancer cells. The tumors didn’t return — suggesting that even after only one injection, the mice may have developed immune system memory against the cancer.

Hartgerink and Young expanded and repeated the study, achieving the same results. That’s when they applied for the patent and submitted their data for publication.

As a physician and oral surgeon, as well as bioengineer, Young knows all too well the toll cancer exacts in human suffering.

He and Hartgerink are now focused on understanding exactly how STINGel works — which is a good place to be, scientifically speaking. “We’ve already seen that it works,” Young said. “Now we need to figure why it does what it does.”

Their research to date has been supported by grants from the OMS Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.