Better grown cells for better cell therapies

Research Lives: Sakis Mantalaris, SFI research professor at Trinity College Dublin and NIBRT

You are looking to make cell therapies work better, can you explain?

In cell therapy a patient receives living cells as a treatment. These might be stem cells, or it could be their own immune cells that have been removed and treated in some way, as happens in CAR T-cell therapy for some blood cancers.

These cells need to be grown and kept under strictly controlled conditions before they are given as therapy, and the cells’ physiology is influenced by the environment where they are grown, how they use nutrients and how their metabolism works.

How do you want to help the cells to work better as treatments?


We think that the more optimal the “diet” and environment the cells are exposed to when they are being grown or altered for therapy outside the body, the better the cells will work when they are returned to patient resulting in more efficient treatment. My research in Trinity and with the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) is looking at how to control the way the cells behave by optimising their environment in the lab.

What sparked your interest in this area?

After I finished high school in Athens, I went to Canada to study engineering. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to not look at fields that are exciting or in the news now, but at what is likely to be happening in a few years, because that is when you will be seeking employment.

So I did my PhD in the US in tissue engineering, where you apply engineering principles to problems in medicine. That was starting to get really interesting in the mid-1990s. After that, my wife Prof Nicki Panoskaltsis and I moved to London for nearly 20 years and then later back to the US. We have been collaborating all that time, me as an academic and engineer – and she as an academic and medical doctor.

Why did you and Nicki move to Ireland recently?

We knew of Ireland’s academic and biomanufacturing excellence. So when I was approached to apply for the Don Panoz Chair joint position between Trinity and NIBRT, Science Foundation Ireland shortlisted me for the SFI research professorship that seeks to attract academic leaders to Ireland supporting something on a grander scale, which was very attractive. I left my position at Georgia Tech and Nicki her position at Emory, and we moved to Dublin.

What are your plans now?

Nicki is an academic at Trinity and practising as a haematologist at St James’s Hospital. We are co-ordinating the creation of an all-Ireland interdisciplinary centre on cellular therapeutics (IMPACT) by teaming up with experts across several universities, hospitals, NIBRT, the national blood service and patient organisations.

Tell me more about that.

There is an excellent foundation here already, and we want to create a system where patients, companies, scientists, economists, engineers, regulatory experts, lawyers, trainers and clinicians can work together at every stage of the way to design, manufacture, translate and implement cellular therapies for patients.

What we are suggesting is a paradigm shift for Ireland in cell therapies, where Ireland becomes extremely active in discovery and clinical trials and bringing discoveries through to the clinic.

What do you love about the work?

It is a cliche of course, but if you can make work your hobby too that is enjoyable. For me as well as the research I enjoy working with the people in our lab, that gives me energy.

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Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation