Engineering the future of cancer research today
Meet Greg Sawyer, PhD
The day after receiving his diagnosis, Greg Sawyer stood inside his laboratory gazing at all of the state-of-the art engineering equipment and realized there was nothing there that could help him with cancer.
Had he followed his childhood ambition to study health and medicine, Sawyer would have better understood what the stage-four diagnosis meant, and what his options were for addressing it. As a kid, he’d looked up to his mother, a pharmacist turned radiologist, who had a passion for helping people.
“Maybe it’s altruistic, but you just kind of feel yourself drawn to that,” he explains.
However, it was the gravitational pull of his dad’s world that ultimately set his career direction—a NASA physicist, Sawyer’s dad was devoted to all things related to flight and aerospace. And there was another force compelling Sawyer toward engineering; he was a kid obsessed with building things.
He explains, “My uncle ran a farm in Virginia and watching him do maintenance on that huge machinery was very inspiring. He seemed independent because he made things work—and for me, it was automobiles. I had a ‘65 Mustang, and taking it apart, trying to make it work—that process of ownership at a truly fundamental level—was very rewarding.
“I fell in love with engineering because of those tangible creative rewards, where if you could see something in your mind, you could build it. There’s an incredible satisfaction in being able to create tangible things that you can hold and work with and use.”
Sawyer’s fascination with automobiles soon sparked a dream of designing them, so he headed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York to study mechanical engineering. While he was a student at Rensselaer, he got the chance to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on probably the most unique car on this or any planet: the Mars Rover. There’s excitement in his voice as he describes that dream come true, and what he discovered about it.
“It was fantastic… We were breaking new ground in autonomous scientific vehicles for operation on distant planets… But actually the mechanism part of the thing was relatively straightforward. Our biggest challenges seemed to be managing movement and motion in the Martian environment, with its temperature extremes and all the carbon dioxide—it’s very different from Earth. So the challenges would come from these surfaces against the harsh environment of Mars—and that field of study is a field of surface science called tribology.”
That discovery of the challenges of surfaces in motion on harsh environments led Sawyer back to Rensselaer to complete his PhD, specializing in tribology. In 1999, he joined the faculty at the University of Florida and started the surface engineering lab that he ran for 13 years, creating materials for challenging applications like nanocomposites for the International Space Station.
“Everybody I’ve ever asked for help always said ‘yes’; it’s been the most rewarding collaboration of my life.”
And then came that pivotal day when his laboratory full of sophisticated engineering tools seemed almost empty:
“I can remember surveying from one corner of the lab all the way to the student offices and back… It was a fleeting sense of, ‘How can this be? How can I have all of these tools, and yet nothing?’ I couldn’t see a single way to help with cancer.”
Because of the late stage and aggressiveness of his cancer, Sawyer felt he had no time to lose, personally or professionally. He began to learn as much as he could about the disease, but the discourse of oncology research was confounding.
“As an engineer, it was shocking,” he says. “It was as if I had just stepped into this completely foreign, chaotic field where a ton of smart people were working, and I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
On a personal level, however, his investigation led him to a clear understanding that he should participate in an immunotherapy trial. It was a lot of work to get on the trial—seven months from definitive diagnosis through multiple rounds of radiation, three surgeries, and then the confined checkpoint immunotherapy.
Meanwhile, he stayed the course with the lab’s engineering work, but privately his passions had shifted. He was sitting in on cancer lectures at the medical school and talking to colleagues there about what they needed—hoping there was something he could contribute as an engineer. Those conversations would lead to a life-changing question.
One day in a discussion about 3D printing research, a molecular biologist colleague asked, “Could you 3D print cancer?” Sawyer calls it the big “Oh, I know how to help” moment.
“Cancer researchers need cancer that they can tear apart and learn from. And it’s hard to do that in patients,” he explains. “That was the moment. And ever since then, every day, everything I can give goes to building the infrastructure to make this possible.”
Sawyer had discovered that the “something” he needed to build was the very thing he needed to conquer: cancer tumors. It launched a complete transformation of his lab toward becoming the world’s first cancer engineering labs. And his colleagues were eager to help.
Sawyer formed a team of engineering peers and students, together with biologists, surgeons, and immunologists.
“I think this may just be the nature of collaboration,” he says. “But everybody I’ve ever asked for help always said ‘yes’; it’s been the most rewarding collaboration of my life.”
His skilled and dedicated team’s goal—to build living, 3D models of cancer—would prove to nonetheless be a tremendous challenge. In their early attempts to grow cancer, they ended up making dead cells. How, they wondered, could they provide, in a synthetic environment, the nutrients that cells need to make tumors? For one thing, they had to re-envision what a multiwell plate would look like for a 3D tumor. It was an ideal challenge for his lab—based on available infrastructure, figure out how to make multiwell plates provide driven, controlled flow in 3D.
“We turned it into an engineering problem,” he says, “and then it didn’t seem so phenomenological. Once we understood what the tumors needed, we turned that into our problem.”
And it worked. “We’re seeing it,” he reports. “We’re adding immune cells to patient-derived tumoroids that we have taken, and grown, and placed in imaging profusion systems, and then watching immune cells killing these tumoroids.”
“And this is just the starting point … We didn’t fly the first Mars Rover that we built,” he says.
“Every day, everything I can give goes to building the infrastructure to make this possible.”
To get beyond this starting point, Sawyer sees promise in his collaboration with Thermo Fisher Scientific.
“Thermo Fisher has been wonderful in helping us with basic infrastructure. Everything from our freezers, incubators, and centrifuges to the entire suite of molecular biology products we use, including ELISA plates, plate readers, PCR instruments—the whole setup. One of the strengths of Thermo Fisher is breadth. You can get everything you need, and you know you’re getting quality stuff. Our lab is built on the back of instrumentation and reagents from Thermo Fisher.”
One of the portfolios most critical to his lab’s 3D modeling efforts to drive innovation in cancer research is the line of Thermo Scientific and Gibco 3D cell culture products from Thermo Fisher Scientific.
“But it’s even more than providing good products—there’s also an inquisitiveness with Thermo Fisher,” he says. “They’re evaluating what we’re doing to see how they can help us make things available to other labs.” Sawyer’s goal is to have cancer engineering labs everywhere—and if researchers could order everything they need, it could help.
“We’re working hard with Thermo Fisher to try to make that a reality.”
While Sawyer has been making such remarkable contributions to cancer research, he doesn’t talk much about his own battle with cancer, except as a means of illuminating his path to battling it for everyone. He’s focused on what can be accomplished today. “It’s a gift to be here,” he says. “And I am aware of it every day. I try not to waste days. This is the future, so let’s all roll up our sleeves and work together.”
For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.