Dr. Kwong’s Laboratory for Synthetic Immunity


Dr. Gabe Kwong is a BME Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech who also runs an immunoengineering lab. He is passionate about his lab work, dedicating himself to helping in the fight against immunological diseases such as cancer. Dr. Kwong wants to tackle cancers of all kinds, such as skin or rectal cancer. However, his lab is not strictly disease-oriented, but rather has a focus on technology. In particular, he is very interested in fundamental tools for T-cell analysis.

As an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, Dr. Kwong majored in bioengineering, where students could take any classes that suited their interests within the discipline. Whether it was microcell biology, immunology, chemistry, or physics, he was interested in just about everything. After graduating, he wanted to go further and explore deeper territories with his studies. He went to graduate school at Caltech, where he caught the “bug” for immunology – he became enamored with the power to develop technologies to improve human health and the ability to contribute to the scientific community.

In years four and five of his graduate studies, he shadowed a clinician who was treating his cancer patients with emerging immunotherapies. This clinician was a collaborator that Dr. Kwong knew through research, but Dr. Kwong never actually saw him practice medicine.

With this shadowing, he learned that the clinician met with real patients while his research and technology were still in development. Most notably, he learned that some patients had extreme responses to certain drugs, prompting him to further research immunology.

Dr. Kwong values cell-based drugs that can figure out ways to deal with diseases themselves over regular treatment drugs; he calls this the way of the future.

In his lab, he and his students design genetic circuits that require synthesizing pieces of DNA, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a month depending on the DNA fragments they use. With the DNA genome well established thanks to the Human Genome Project, Dr. Kwong wants to design cheap ways of producing high-throughput analysis. This type of analysis means any analysis that processes high volumes of data and/or samples within a much shorter time than average (e.g. 100,000 cells analyzed in just a few hours). Currently, PCR (polymerase chain reaction), scans only 1 small piece of DNA at a time, and Dr. Kwong is not satisfied with that rate.

Not all of the equipment in his lab is designed for DNA; many of his machines are for purifying proteins. These proteins are then used in processes like PCR, which involves cloning said proteins for the genetic circuits. Other such processes involve chemical methods that create completely synthetic DNA fragments not from the genome; these fragments have chemical handles that attach to a surface, bead, or protein for experiments.

Dr. Kwong starts off each new year by addressing his lab with a “State of the Lab Address.”

In this speech, he outlines the most important accomplishments of the past year and the biggest goals for the coming year, which may include tasks such as applying for grants, publishing papers, spending money for resources or equipment, and reaching out to other people who may be able to help him. He establishes a general schedule for everyone in the lab to abide by, and group meetings are scheduled around the students’ schedules. Dr. Kwong likes to maintain a flexible schedule, as there are always many setbacks that occur throughout the semester, such as a vital piece of equipment malfunctioning or not receiving a supply of microorganisms on time.

It is impossible to predict when and where the setbacks will occur, but he can at least prepare for problems in advance. One of the biggest setbacks is that experiments almost never work out as desired the first time, which requires much trial and error to compensate for. This is an issue that is present for all labs, not just his own.

In addition to preparing for setbacks beyond his control, he also makes sure that his interests and his students’ interests regarding the lab are aligned on a constant basis. While his lab does fall under the umbrella labels of “immunology program” and “T-cell lab”, he and his students are not always on the same page with regards to which issues are the most interesting or important to them.

The most important part of any laboratory is making progress on its assignments.

For labs like Dr. Kwong’s, he says that “the currency in scientific research is publications, and they need grant support to publish their research.”

A big measure of tangible success for his lab is the quality of the publications that spawn from it.

One project he works on is a diagnostic system of nanoparticles/probes that are injected into patients to detect disease tissues; they would be ejected from the body in urine, where they would then be analyzed for diseases. He created this system in 2009 at MIT as a postdoctorate, founded a company for this system in 2015, and will test this concept in human trials in 2018 and 2019. According to Dr. Kwong, the true beauty of academia is seeing what works among various translational ideas he may have, as well as seeing relevant papers published on his website.

He plans to run his lab for decades to come, until “the time when he can’t walk or sit.” It is his life’s passion, and he intends to keep it alive for as long as possible.

His lab is like a business in that he attracts customers who are interested in his work, which in turn can attract the academic freedom to explore more uncharted territories in his lab. This is by far the most important value to him for his work.

Dr. Kwong is seeking new recruits for his lab, undergraduates, graduates, and postdoctorates alike. He gets many applications from students in his classes, so if you are one of them, you can get in contact with him very easily. His lab website is linked at the top of this page, so you can find more information on how to apply there. If you want to work with someone who is dedicated to the fight against immunological diseases, get in touch with him as soon as possible.