Science lab spotlight

Molding medicine with materials

The Anderson Lab designs original materials to deliver biological therapies for various disease models

Daniel Anderson, principal investigator of the Anderson Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, put the primary goal of his lab simply: “We want to make people better.” The field of nanoscale medical devices and treatments has skyrocketed in recent years, and the Anderson Lab is at its forefront. His team focuses on developing materials for genetics and medicine and applying these novel nanomaterial therapies to cancer and diabetes.

Many molecular treatments, such as DNA-based, RNA-based, and protein-based medications, are only therapeutically effective if given the opportunity to function within specific cells. The Anderson Lab focuses on developing vehicles to carry out targeted delivery of these molecular treatments. These vessels are nanoparticles, or small spheres that release their contents intracellularly after being “eaten,” as Anderson described, by individual cells. However, in order to design and synthesize these nanoparticles, it is crucial to understand the underlying chemistry. This knowledge gap drove Anderson’s original work in genetics to expand and encompass nanomaterials and polymer science. “We are not just making devices with existing materials,” said Anderson. “We want to make new materials.”

These tiny nanoparticles hold vast therapeutic potential. One of the Anderson Lab’s current projects focuses on using nanoparticles to deliver the CRISPR-Cas9 system into animals for genome editing in vivo. Additionally, the lab is working to develop methods of transporting specific messenger RNA (mRNA) into cells that promote the production of specific proteins to treat disease. In fact, one mRNA-based formula is being tested in humans this year in conjunction with Translate Bio, a biotech company out of Lexington, Massachusetts.

The Anderson Lab has also applied its interests in materials to tissue engineering. One of the lab’s current endeavors is the creation of a new, autoimmune-resistant pancreas for patients who suffer from Type-I diabetes. On demand, this biological machine could produce the right drugs at proper levels to treat a vast array of diseases, such as hemophilia. Anderson is excited about putting these techniques toward creating a “living drug factory” in the body.  

“The bottom line is that this stuff is complicated,” says Anderson, “It takes a lot of skills to make these types of devices, everything from chemistry to materials science to electrical engineering, biology, and more.” Creating a functional product, especially within the intricate context of disease, requires the interplay of a variety of disciplines, and Anderson has had his fair share of relevant integrative experiences prior to his arrival at the Koch in 2011. His venture into STEM started as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he began as a mathematics major, and, eventually, tacked on a biology major. Upon graduating in 1992, Anderson was enthralled by genetic engineering and biotechnology, which led him to pursue a PhD in molecular genetics at the University of California at Davis, ultimately leading him to Bob Langer at the Koch Institute for his postdoc.

Anderson and his team have plans to continue to surge forward into the realms of tissue engineering and nanomedicine to better the human condition, whether through biocompatible materials for islet transplantation, materials for therapeutic stem cell use, or glucose-responsive drug delivery. Clearly, no disease, challenge, or technology is too big or too small for the Anderson Lab.