UCLA Bioengineering Alumnus Aims to Democratize Cancer Treatments

Andy Chen

Courtesy of Andy Chen
Under Andy Chen’s leadership, SparkGene Biotechnology has won two major entrepreneurship competitions at UCLA.

Oct 16, 2023

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

The American Cancer Society estimates 59,610 Americans will receive a leukemia diagnosis and 23,710 will die from the blood cancer in the U.S. by the end of this year. Cell therapy, a treatment for leukemia and similar cancers, can cost more than six figures per patient.

SparkGene Biotechnology, a startup developed by Binru “Andy” Chen Ph.D. `23 while a graduate student at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, looks to tackle this problem head-on and make life-saving cancer treatments more affordable. The company has already won the top prizes in two UCLA entrepreneurship competitions. 

The current cell therapy involves a lengthy, multi-step process to manufacture therapeutic cells for treatment — including collecting cells from the patient, gene-editing these cells to identify and destroy cancer cells, and putting the engineered cells back in the patient for treatment. The gene-editing step is highly inefficient, leading to a costly and time-consuming cell-manufacturing process.

“My objective is to democratize cell therapy, thereby expanding its accessibility to a wider patient base,” Andy Chen said.

Drawing on microfluidic technology detailed in his doctoral dissertation, Chen created a device that can expedite this process by squeezing cell nuclei slightly to expose DNA from the chromatin — an assortment of molecule structures that packs the DNA — without damaging the cells. According to Chen, this technology can increase gene-editing efficiency by 10 times, and since the fabrication cost of the device is less than $10, it will make cell therapy more affordable and accessible. The technology enables millions of cells to be processed per minute, with more than a 99% cell survival rate. 

“My objective is to democratize cell therapy, thereby expanding its accessibility to a wider patient base,” Chen said. “We aim to bring the current cell therapy to the next level with much higher efficiency and much better affordability for all patients.”

Chen traced his interest in engineering back to his childhood when he was first introduced to engineering through his favorite toy — an electronic circuit-building set. Math and physics competitions further developed his logic skills at primary school in Jiangsu Province, China. Chen said it was the room for creativity and innovation that drew him to engineering over a career in math or physics.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, Chen discovered his passion for bioengineering. He was fascinated by the potential of using engineering to solve problems in biology after researching leukemia’s mechanical properties in a biomaterials lab at the university. After graduating as a member of the university’s inaugural class, Chen said he wanted to find a way to continue his academic career in bioengineering.

Andy Chen
Courtesy of Andy Chen/UCLA
Andy Chen (center) and his team received first place in the 2023 Lowell Milken Institute-Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs.

Drawn by the reputations of both the engineering and medical schools at UCLA, Chen decided to pursue a doctoral degree as a Bruin. He joined the Department of Bioengineering chair and professor Song Li’s lab, where he focused on mechanobiology, cell reprogramming and microfluidics. 

It was in Li’s lab that Chen’s startup was born. Together with postdoctoral scholar Yang Song, Chen formed Tetra-C Therapeutics, now operating as SparkGene Biotechnology

The pair tapped business students Kevin Eskander, Justin Shapiro and Toni Zhang to assist with the company’s marketing efforts, while enlisting help from law students Jack Santoro and Nicholas Tiee to handle the legal aspects of the spinoff. 

The team has already won a combined $39,000 in prize money after taking first place in Anderson School of Management’s 2023 Lowell Milken Institute-Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs and the School of Law’s 2023 Cross-Campus Innovation Challenge

“I’ve learned that strategic planning and a proactive mindset are the keys to success,” Chen said of his experience leading the team to compete and won. “No opportunity will come to you itself with no reason and you need to keep learning to be prepared when opportunities come.” 

A recent doctoral graduate in June, Chen says he hopes his technology could be applied to therapies for other cancers, neurodegenerative diseases and chronic autoimmune diseases in the long term. 

“It is motivating to envision the prospect of a future where cell therapy is affordable and accessible to all patients,” he said. “My mother’s constant encouragement to utilize my knowledge for the good of human beings inspires me to keep pursuing this goal.”

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