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Moffitt's new Bioengineering Department is taking a multifaceted approach to accelerate cancer research. Engineers are collaborating with researchers and clinicians in a range of areas to provide 3D modeling of cancer and tumors. This image shows a colorectal tumoroid with a POLE mutation.

Photo by: Bioengineering Department

Greg Sawyer was used to working in the great unknown. Early in his career, the mechanical engineer had been part of the NASA team that designed the original Mars rover, a robotically operated vehicle developed to explore and withstand the harsh conditions on the red planet. Later, his team at the University of Florida built instruments to evaluate nanocomposites in low Earth orbit as they were exposed to the space environment on the International Space Station.

Sawyer’s enthusiasm for figuring out solutions to complex problems was boundless. But in 2013, he came up against a challenge that made the unknown almost unbearable. At the age of 42, he was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma. The doctors never found the primary site, but the cancer had metastasized and spread.

Suddenly, Sawyer’s world shrank. His work in surface engineering and interactions no longer seemed to matter as much. His focus shifted to the path immediately in front of him.

The father of two underwent several surgeries and rounds of radiation. Sawyer also began researching immunotherapy clinical trials. That brought him to Moffitt Cancer Center and a trial being led by Jeffrey Weber, MD, PhD.

In December 2013, Sawyer became a part of a pioneering treatment regimen of ipilimumab and nivolumab. The combination therapy, which has since been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, activates the immune system while tearing down tumor cell defenses. For Sawyer, it appears to be working.

But that treatment was just the start of Sawyer’s journey into the world of cancer.

A Shift in Purpose

While Sawyer was researching his own cancer and treatment options, the engineer part of his brain latched onto something ― hope. What if the tools of engineering could be used to tackle the unknowns in cancer?

“When I was researching, I really had no idea what I was reading at first,” he said. “I was just trying to learn on the fly, just trying to see where, if anywhere, our tools could be used.”

Greg Sawyer, PhD, Moffitt Cancer Center

After his own cancer diagnosis, Greg Sawyer, Ph.D., decided to devote all the resources of engineering to tackle the problems of cancer. Now, he leads Moffitt's Bioengineering Department, the first of its kind for a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

For the next three years, Sawyer devoted himself to looking for ways he could contribute to cancer research. And for those three years, he felt like he was just spinning his wheels. After all, he had a doctorate in mechanical engineering, not cancer biology.

One day, he found himself again frustrated, standing in front of a whiteboard, trying to brainstorm how he could help tackle cancer. Then it hit him.

“I can really remember just thinking: We need to do this differently. Let’s not feel guilty for what we don’t know. Instead, let’s write down how engineers would attack this problem, given all of the resources of engineering,” he said.

At the time, his lab at the University of Florida had been doing work in 3D printing. “There was this idea that maybe you could use 3D printing to print organs, and we thought maybe we could use it to print cancer and print tumors. What would happen if we could make thousands of little precise tumors, and what could researchers do with that? And we just started from scratch right there.”

Sawyer converted his lab to focus on cancer and tumor engineering. He used his expertise in 3D modeling and high-resolution imaging to quickly reproduce tumors and allow real-time testing of therapeutics. He also began reaching out to cancer experts in search of collaborators.

That’s how he met Elsa Flores, PhD, associate center director for the Division of Basic Science at Moffitt.

A New Vision for Bioengineering

Flores had a vision to build bioengineering capabilities beyond individual collaborations. Based on her experiences as a chemical engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she envisioned Moffitt having its own Bioengineering Department, a first for a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

She had seen Sawyer talk about his work in a seminar, and she was impressed. So she toured Sawyer’s lab at UF in March 2022 to learn more about the work he was doing and to invite him to serve on the board of advisors for Bioengineering at Moffitt. Flores and Sawyer quickly initiated a collaboration to build a discovery platform to develop drugs for targets that have been deemed “undruggable.”

Elsa Flores, PhD, Moffitt Cancer Center

Elsa Flores, Ph.D., associate center director for the Division of Basic Science at Moffitt, has a vision of collaboration for the new Bioengineering Department. She expects 3D modeling of cancer and tumors, as well as state-of-the-art imaging capabilities, to allow researchers to quickly reproduce and study samples taken from patients.

Sawyer’s connection to the cancer center was already both personal and professional. In addition to being treated at Moffitt, he had previously collaborated with Patrick Hwu, MD, Moffitt’s president and CEO, on chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR T) therapy. The pair had conducted experiments to observe in 3D how CAR T cells attack solid tumors.

As Flores and her lab began to learn his 3D modeling techniques, it became clear that Sawyer’s passion for cancer bioengineering fit perfectly into Flores’ vision for the future.

“There is so much excitement about this new initiative at Moffitt. In February 2023, Dr. Sawyer and I hosted a Bioengineering at Moffitt summit, which attracted thought leaders in engineering and cancer to Tampa to discuss this new department,” Flores said.

In April 2023, Sawyer joined Moffitt as chair of the new Bioengineering Department.

“It’s nice to have a fresh perspective on how we study cancer,” Flores said. “A lot of the reason that cancer therapy fails is because it’s so nonspecific. It makes the patient sick because it’s systemic. So being able to pinpoint therapies to the right place, we hope engineers can help us with that.”

The new department is taking a multifaceted approach to accelerate cancer research. Sawyer’s lab is collaborating with Moffitt researchers and clinicians in a range of other areas to provide 3D modeling of cancer and tumors, allowing researchers to quickly reproduce and study samples taken from patients.

“We’ve tried to re-create tumors mostly by genetically modifying cells in mice,” Flores said. “Essentially, we were trying to engineer a tumor, but it’s extremely difficult to model in the mouse because it’s hard to re-create the complex genetics required for a human tumor to survive. Dr. Sawyer’s platform allows us to actually take the tumor from the patient and duplicate it.”

The department also arms researchers with groundbreaking microscopic imaging, enabling scientists to clearly observe the 3D cancer models and how they interact with their environment, metastasize and respond to specific therapeutics. To bolster imaging capabilities, Moffitt now houses a Nikon Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art facility that gives researchers and clinicians access to cutting-edge imaging technologies.

“With this imaging and the ability to look at tumors and the drivers of tumorigenesis on a single-cell level, we’ll be able to ask questions that we haven’t been able to ask before,” Flores explained. “We’ll be able to look at the resistance to certain drugs, the molecular changes and potentially new biomarkers to provide a more personalized therapy regimen for patients.”

With the ability to produce thousands of small tumor samples from one patient biopsy and closely observe them, researchers can test the effectiveness of individual cell therapies at a scale that had not previously been possible.

“From one tumor, we can now run hundreds of thousands of experiments,” Flores said. “Duplicating the tumor allows us to probe all the different pathways that we think are involved in cancer. That allows the testing of many different types of therapies, and it helps with reproducibility and scalability.”

Looking to the Future

The new Bioengineering Department is part of the Center for Innovation that will be located at Moffitt’s SPEROS FL campus in Pasco County. The engineers will work alongside scientists from the departments of Drug Discovery, Metabolism and Physiology, Molecular Oncology, and Tumor Biology in a new state-of-the-art research building.

“We’re really trying to integrate engineers into the cancer center across the entire mission,” Sawyer said. “From developing cell therapies, to helping clinician scientists to ultimately have tools for patients, to working with the basic scientists to help answer incredibly important fundamental questions.”

This multidisciplinary collaboration is expected to come easy at the Speros FL campus, as the research building is being designed with open integration labs on every floor.

“The idea is that these laboratories will have all the features of the different types of research going on in the building, so the scientists from different areas can come together quickly to work on a problem,” Flores explained. “With these engineers and scientists all co-located, there will be essentially unrestricted opportunities for collaboration, innovation, discovery and invention.”

From these collaborations, Flores and Sawyer also expect to see innovative start-ups and partnerships with industry.

“It’s a unique area in biotech,” Sawyer said. “In bioengineering, we’re trying to integrate things often across disparate fields. Those advances can become very important tools that need to be developed by small business to make them available more broadly to the larger cancer mission, across the country and around the world.”

The new Speros FL research building is expected to open in fall 2025. In the meantime, Sawyer aims to build out the Bioengineering Department with a wide range of experts who can look at cancer research through a different lens.

“There’s huge opportunity to get that fresh perspective, to pull in experts in astronomy, chemistry, nanomaterials, material science and drug discovery,” Sawyer explained. “There are opportunities to pull these fields in and make use of their many advances that just haven’t been applied to cancer research yet. That’s how you accelerate discovery ― by bringing in different groups.”

A Reminder of the Mission

As the new department grows, Flores points out the benefit of its unique positioning within a Comprehensive Cancer Center. The engineers will have direct access to patient samples, oncologists and cancer researchers. They will also be surrounded by reminders of how much their work matters.

“Everybody knows someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, but it’s not really in your face unless you’re at a cancer center,” Flores said. “I always tell people in my lab: If you ever feel like what you’re doing isn’t important, just walk over to where patients and families are sitting in the waiting areas. That inspires people.”

For Sawyer, the mission is personal. His path in life changed after his diagnosis.

“I was trying to give back, to see what I could find, if anything, to give back to the cancer research community,” he remembers.

A decade later, he is making progress in his mission ― and once again shedding light on the unknown.

Moffitt Cancer Center SPEROS FL

As part of the Center for Innovation at the new Speros FL campus, researchers from Bioengineering and other departments will be able to work together on projects in open integration labs like this.

This article originally appeared in Moffitt’s Momentum magazine.