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Q&A with Dr. Christopher Jewell: Bridging Engineering and Biology

April 4, 2021

Christopher M. Jewell, PhD, who received a PhRMA Foundation Research Starter Grant in Pharmaceutics, is an expert in drug delivery, immunotherapy, biomaterials, and biotechnology/pharmaceuticals.

Christopher Jewell, PhD.

Christopher M. Jewell, PhD, who received a PhRMA Foundation Research Starter Grant in Pharmaceutics, is an expert in drug delivery, immunotherapy, biomaterials, and biotechnology/pharmaceuticals. He is currently the Minta Martin Professor of Engineering in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering at the University of Maryland and a Research Biologist with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs – where he has earned distinction for his important research in immunology and vaccines.

The work of Dr. Jewell and his colleagues at the University of Maryland is offering new hope for patients – including recent efforts to design an immunotherapy strategy to treat multiple sclerosis (MS) and other autoimmune diseases. The findings of Dr. Jewell’s team, published in ACS Nano, included using nanomaterials to manipulate inflammatory pathways that might one day help slow or reverse MS without compromising a patient’s immune system.

Recently, Dr. Jewell was named an Australian laureate for 2021, with an appointment as the Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the University of Melbourne, where he will spend the year working on new vaccine technologies in the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

Dr. Jewell has authored more than 100 papers and patent filings, supported by $20 million in grants and fellowships. He has earned more than 50 awards for research and education, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) awarded by the White House. Dr. Jewell is also a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) and has served as an Associate Scientific Adviser for Science Translational Medicine. He was selected by the Maryland Academy of Sciences as the state of Maryland’s Outstanding Young Engineer, the state’s highest honor awarded to an engineer under 36.

Dr. Jewell graduated from Lehigh University with high honors with bachelor’s degrees in Chemical Engineering and in Molecular Biology. He attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, completing his PhD in Chemical Engineering.

We recently caught up with Dr. Jewell and asked him a few questions about his work:

Q: How did you get involved in vaccine research?

After my PhD, I worked in health care strategy as a consultant at Boston Consulting Group. One of my clients was a global vaccine and immunotherapy company. I fell in love with immunology and focused on the emerging field of immune engineering as I was searching for a postdoc. I ended up at MIT and Harvard where I developed expertise to complement my formal degrees in chemical engineering and molecular biology.

Q: What kind of research are you currently conducting?

My lab’s research is at the interface of engineering and biology. We use the unique properties of biomaterials as tools to study immune processes, and as precision technologies to direct immune signaling. The fundamental studies seek to reveal the interactions between synthetic materials and immune tissues, such as lymph nodes. In our translational projects, we are working toward safe and selective therapeutic vaccines targeting cancer and autoimmune disease. The common theme between these two immune outcomes is the ability to control the context in which lymphocytes encounter antigens: activating pro-immune processes during presentation of tumor antigens to combat cancer, or engaging regulatory mechanisms during presentation of self-antigens to promote selective tolerance during autoimmune disease.

Q: What impact could your work ultimately have on vaccinations, the patient population, and health outcomes?

Our ultimate goal is to generate vaccines that induce potent immune responses in a therapeutic context. Biomaterials offer special features to enable this goal, including co-delivery of immune cues, control over the density with which immune signals are presented, and targeting of immune cells and tissues. For patients with cancer and autoimmune disease — where many existing treatments are not curative and cause serious side effects, harnessing the selectivity of the immune system could continue to be transformative as this field advances. Additionally, because immune responses can be long-lasting, patient compliance may also improve, as well as the cost burden on patients and their loved ones.

Q: How did support from the PhRMA Foundation benefit your career?

PhRMA support was transformative as I launched my lab. The Pharmaceutics Research Starter Grant was the first grant I ever received! Not only did it provide me with crucial funding to conduct studies that eventually help me secure multiple NIH R01s and top Foundation Grants — such as the Damon Runyon Innovator Award – the PhRMA Foundation’s support gave me a network of experts and mentors that helped me grow as a researcher and mentor. Mentoring is a fantastic aspect of this career – it is so exciting to see how the group constantly changes and evolves, and then to follow our alumni as they go out to their next steps. Creating a diverse and inclusive group is an area we constantly strive for, just as we continually work to push the rigor and transparency of our research.