Andrew McShan Awarded Curci Grant for Cutting-Edge Cancer Research

Andrew McShan, assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech, has been awarded a prestigious Curci grant for research in cutting-edge cancer treatments. 

The award, provided by the Shurl and Kay Curci Foundation, supports innovative research at the forefront of its field. The new funding will provide two years of support for McShan's investigation into developing the next generation of universal immunotherapies.

“We aim to understand how the immune system works and learn how it plays roles in disease,” McShan says. “We're using biochemistry and structural biology to characterize biomolecules at the atomic level, and harness their intrinsic features for new therapeutic avenues.”

McShan’s research will center on lipids — a previously understudied avenue in cancer treatment — and it has two major components: identifying new cancer lipid signatures in tumor cells, and characterizing known cancer lipid antigens to develop a “molecular blueprint” for immunotherapy. Since lipid antigens provide broad, more universal signatures than current techniques, the applications of the research span a wide range of cancers and immune disorders. 

“It's a really interesting new way of thinking about this problem,” McShan says. “We hope that it's a paradigm shift in the way that we think about not only general immune system functions, but also the way that you can target cancer. This same protein system also works with pathogens and autoimmune disease it’s an incredibly important system.”

A new paradigm

Previously, immunotherapy research has largely centered on developing treatments around targeting mutated peptides, because cancer often causes these mutated proteins.

While peptide-based treatments have proven to be highly effective, the strategy isn’t universal different people present different peptide mutations to the immune system. “You would have to spend years developing an immunotherapy for just one person who has one type of cancer,” McShan explains, “and that therapy might not work for the next person.”

However, recent research indicates that lipids — fatty and waxy substances in the body that don't dissolve in water, like cholesterol — might provide a more effective avenue. “Lipid signals present more universal signatures to the immune system than peptides, and immune system responses to lipids are less dependent on the person,” McShan says.

Research into lipid-based immunotherapies has historically been limited because lipids are notoriously difficult to study in the lab. However, new tools needed to study lipids have recently become available, opening the door to this groundbreaking research. 

Because these tools are so new, though, “a lot of the foundational basic research hasn’t been completed yet,” McShan says. “This grant is a two year grant, and we plan to do this foundational research. This research will provide what the scientific community needs to start thinking about how to move lipid antigens into a clinical area.”

Universal treatments and the next generation of scientists

While McShan’s research team will focus on cancer for the Curci grant, lipid-based treatments could open the door for additional cost-effective, timely treatments treatments that could also apply to multiple types of cancers, and to other diseases. “If we can understand these cancer lipid antigens — how they're functioning and what they’re doing — there is a translation to the other applications in immunotherapy,” McShan says.

“The protein that we're studying, called CD1, plays roles in nearly every immunological response or disease,” McShan adds. “This type of research could be important for responses to viral infection, bacteria and parasite pathogens, and autoimmune disease.”

Lipids can aid in the development of new and improved vaccines. For example, a lipid-based tuberculosis vaccine has been shown to have the same efficacy as a tuberculosis vaccine made from a live attenuated bacterium. “If we were to discover new cancer lipids these could potentially be used as prophylactic cancer vaccines,” McShan says.

As a newer member of the Georgia Tech community, McShan is also already making an impact across the campus community. “We care a lot about making science accessible, and being equitable and inclusive,” McShan, who joined the College of Sciences faculty in summer 2022, says. “Our lab is almost entirely women, and so the research that this grant is going to support is also going to support the next generation of women doing science amazing science — and that’s something that gets me really excited.”