Ankur Singh manipulates synthetic materials and living cells to improve human health. He traces his motivation to his experiences discussing problems with patients as a biomedical engineering student in India. “My ultimate goal is to take this research to the clinical level and benefit patients,” he says.
Singh came to the United States to contribute in the emerging field of immune engineering. One of his first Ph.D. research projects at the University of Texas at Austin was an injectable biomaterial vaccine for hepatitis B. He developed a new approach to simultaneously deliver DNA vaccine along with immune modulating RNA, using synthetic polymer based formulations.
His polymer vaccine is a liquid suspension but when injected into the muscles, forms a gel-based “immune priming center.” Singh’s vaccine is synthetic, reducing any chance of infections. “When you inject a conventional liquid vaccine, the body tends to clear it very quickly,” says Singh. “With a gel-like immune priming center, it prolongs the retention of the vaccine within the body over days to months, and possibly even years.”
The vaccine has a “long distance” immunity-inducing effect. “With this material I created, you can signal these immune cells in some other part of the body to come to the gel deposit, encounter the vaccine, get ready to fight the infection, and go back and kill the infectious cells,” he says.
Towards the end of his Ph.D., Singh became interested in personalized medicine with applications in tissue engineering and immunology. As a post-doc at Georgia Tech, he worked on human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are made by inducing human skin cells (or even blood cells) using viruses to revert these cells back to their embryonic-like state with a potential to form any mature cell in the body. “I wanted to understand how these cells bind to a surface as they transition from adult stage to pluripotent state,” says Singh.
He found that skin cells bond very strongly to a protein surface, but iPS cells do not. That presented a new way to pluck iPS cells from the soup of the reprogramming culture, a time consuming manual process that relies on qualitative assessment or staining with antibodies.
Singh engineered a microfluidic device where a fluid can be flowed through the channels in which stem cells are cultured, just fast enough to dislodge iPS cells, but leave non-iPS cells behind, thus sorting the two different types of cells. This same method can be used to sort out other mature types of cells, too—neural cells are even less ‘sticky’ than the iPS cells, for example.
At Cornell, Singh is establishing his Immunotherapy and Cell Engineering Lab where he wants to create biomaterial platforms that can act as surrogates for tissues, with applications in personalized medicine, understanding diseases, and screening drugs and vaccines. “The problem with current approaches is you don’t have a good control over the microstructure,” says Singh. “If you can do that, you can understand how cells survive, migrate in and out, and get programmed to perform their designated function.”
Singh is also looking into understanding the mechanism of stem cell reprogramming. Currently, scientists mostly program a mature cell into an iPS cell before turning it into the desired cell type through a process called differentiation. “This is a long but low-throughput process. I want to understand how to efficiently bypass the iPS stage and directly make therapeutic adult cells. It’s a big research area, and not much is known about it.”
Singh chose Cornell for many reasons. “First of all, it’s a world-class University with outstanding pool of students and a phenomenally collaborative environment. I also talked to several faculty members, and was excited by the work they’re doing, he says. “I wanted to start and establish my career at a place that had the best resources, an outstanding pool of faculty, and a strong relationship with a medical school. Cornell had what I was looking for.”