The CIIC: A center to drive translational science

After two years of planning, the Chicago Immunoengineering Innovation Center (CIIC) opened in February 2020 to catalyze fundamental and translational research in immunology so the treatments developed from them can be used to improve human health. 

“We want to build more connectivity between the technologies and approaches that we're developing in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s Immunoengineering labs with the actual patients in a hospital setting,” said Jeffrey Hubbell, Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering, who co-directs the center with Melody Swartz, William B. Ogden Professor of Molecular Engineering. 

As part of this strategy, the center provides bridge funding to help fill holes in the immunoengineering research pipeline. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, this funding model also allowed the center to quickly apply for stimulus funds to start new projects focused on COVID-19, with the eventual goal of attracting external support through grants or industry partnerships.

The center has core facilities that researchers can use, including preclinical evaluation and single cell genomics core facilities. It also contains a mouse clinic with many different disease models — cancer, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory models — that allows researchers to test their ideas in an animal model, an important step to attract potential funders to move toward human trials. 

“To go from a basic idea to showing your results in a mouse model is a key next step for translation,” said Hubbell. “That can sometimes be a million-dollar undertaking, so we created this mouse clinic so that we can really efficiently test ideas in animal models of disease.” 

The center’s faculty span several schools and departments at the University of Chicago and approach immunoengineering from a number of collaborative angles, such as cancer immunotherapy, vaccine delivery, the role of the microbiome in allergies, and autoimmune disorders.

“Because we have so many research teams working in this area, we are able to really build off and learn from each other,” said Swartz. “The discoveries you make in cancer immunotherapy, for example, can be valuable in treating autoimmune diseases. This center will make those cross-lab connections even stronger.”

The center also works closely with the immunoengineering start-up community, Argonne National Laboratory and UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to commercialize and license technologies.

“We hope to be the ideas engine that helps build a bigger biotechnology startup culture in Chicago,” Hubbell said. “We want to push our technologies out the door, and we want to see measurable results in terms of patents and licenses.”

Editor's note: This feature is part of a series that highlights Pritzker Molecular Engineering centers and partnerships as part of our 10-year anniversary. Visit our website to read more and register for an alumni and industry day on Sept. 17 and a scientific conference on Sept. 18.