Li Tang makes prestigious list of 35 Innovators Under 35 for China

Li Tang© 2020 EPFL

Li Tang© 2020 EPFL

The Tenure Track Assistant Professor in EPFL’s School of Engineering, who is developing immunotherapy approaches to treat cancer, has been named to MIT Technology Review’s 2019 China list of the 35 most promising innovators under 35 years of age. This list is a who’s who of up-and-coming Chinese researchers poised to revolutionize our lifestyles and shape the future of technology and industry.

MIT Technology Review has been compiling an annual list of the most promising innovators around the world since 1999. Every year it publishes a list of 35 innovators under 35 whose groundbreaking work has the potential to change the future of science and technology. Each year, brilliant men and women are recognized for their advancements in diverse technical fields including biotechnology and medicine, computer and electronics hardware, software, internet, artificial intelligence, robotics, telecommunications, nanotechnology and materials, energy and transportation.

Past honorees include Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) in 2007, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google) in 2002, and Feng Zhang (CRISPR gene-editing pioneer) in 2013.

Recognizing the rise of Chinese technology talent, the magazine decided to launch a 35 Innovators Under 35 list specifically for China in 2017, in collaboration with TR China. Li Tang, a Tenure Track Assistant Professor in the Institute of Bioengineering at EPFL’s School of Engineering, features on the 2019 list. This list includes young minds who are not only conducting innovative research, but also actively translating their novel technologies into potentially life-changing applications.

Nanoparticle “backpacks” substantially enhance T-cell therapy

Prof. Tang’s focus is new immunotherapy technologies to treat cancer. Two startups have already been created to transfer some of the technologies he developed from the laboratory to clinics.

One of his groundbreaking accomplishments was to substantially improve both the safety and efficacy of Adoptive T-cell therapy (ACT) and extend the applications of ACT to treat solid tumors. Adoptive T-cell therapy (ACT) has shown drastically improved efficacy against liquid cancer in the clinic. However, cures are still rare in the treatment of solid tumors, because unacceptable levels of toxicity are often observed in treated patients.

Under Prof. Tang’s approach, T-cells are “backpacked” with nanoparticles loaded with T-cell-supporting drugs, and the drug release is triggered only when the T-cells encounter and recognize tumor cells, which avoids causing toxicity in healthy tissue. Specifically, Tang devised a “smart” nanoparticle that, when it encounters a tumor cell, can sense the change in chemical status (called redox activity) on T-cell surfaces. Tumor cell recognition leads to elevated T-cell activation status and increased membrane redox activity.

This novel nanotechnology-enabled ACT immunotherapy could one day help treat a wide range of cancer patients and cure refractory solid tumors. A Boston-based startup called Torque Therapeutic was created to market this therapeutic approach – which has been granted Fast Track Designation by the US FDA – and launched a phase I clinical trial in 2019.

A personalized precision vaccine against tumors
Prof. Tang is also seeking to develop new therapeutic cancer vaccines. The clinical efficacy of such vaccines remains modest to date, owing in part to the lack of an efficient and safe delivery platform. Prof. Tang took a pioneering approach to this problem, using the polymerization technique known as polycondensation to come up with an innovative vaccine platform called Polycondensate Neoepitope (PNE).

Under this method, the cancer vaccine is prepared with highly controlled physiochemical properties by reversibly polymerizing the tumor-specific antigens – also called “neoantigens,” which are antigens from unique mutations in tumor cells that are not present in normal cells – through the use of smart chemistry.

Because those mutations vary from individual to individual, the PNE is designed as a personalized vaccine for precision immunotherapy. The PNE vaccine substantially improves antigen capture by immune cells and responsively releases the antigens inside the immune cells inducing a potent immune response that is able to kill tumor cells without causing any toxicity.

The PNE vaccine could potentially activate the immune systems of cancer patients in a personalized and safe manner and thus remarkably improve their clinical response. A patent has been filed for this breakthrough research, which is also the basis for the startup PepGene.