Sharma receives prestigious NSF CAREER Award

Dr. Blanka Sharma, assistant professor in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering, has been named a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award Winner.

Sharma’s achievement will allow her to develop biomaterials and engineering approaches to understand and direct immune responses in both cancer and tissue regeneration. This proposal focuses on the design and application of hydrogels to understand how biophysical and biochemical cues in the microenvironment of solid tumors contribute to the suppression of Natural Killer (NK) cells.

Though there are thousands of types of cancer, a hallmark of the disease is escape from immune surveillance. Cancer immunotherapies, which attempt to reactivate the immune system against cancer cells, have experienced exciting new advances, however, response rates remain highly variable and treatments carry a risk of serious adverse effects. There is an emerging interest in developing therapies that enhance the body’s own natural killers of cancer (NK cells) – immune cells that have an inherent ability to directly recognize cancer cells and destroy them without the safety issues associated with current therapies. While much research and attention are focused on enhancing NK cell activation at the NK cell-cancer cell synapse, without sufficient NK cell infiltration into tumors these strategies may ultimately be ineffective.

The scientific goal of this proposal is to engineer tumor microenvironments to interrogate the reciprocal interactions between NK cells, the extracellular matrix and cancer cells that impact the ability of NK cells to infiltrate and attack tumors. Additionally, this research will advance new strategies for effective NK cell immunotherapies. The proposed work would be the first to study NK cell migration and activity within engineered biomaterials. Given the broad role of NK cells in cancer, tissue homeostasis, fetal development and autoimmune disease, the proposed work will have a broad impact on numerous fields related to immune engineering.

This award will also support educational and outreach initiatives that integrate engineering, medical applications and industry needs at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels. Outreach activities aimed at increasing awareness of the breadth of opportunities a STEM education provides and the impact STEM professionals have on their communities will be targeted to middle school students and teachers in underserved schools in north-central Florida, with the ultimate goal of building a robust and diverse STEM workforce.

CAREER awards are the NSF’s most prestigious award for junior faculty and are designed to help provide a foundation for a lifetime of scientific leadership. The awards are given to an outstanding scientist who exemplifies the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of education and research.