Researchers from the University of Georgia have developed a new approach to cancer treatment, using nanoparticles to train the body's immune system to kill off the cancer cells on its own.
Nanoparticle-treated cancer cells have been shown to trigger an immune response in ex-vivo studies. Image credit: Photos.com
Nanoparticles have been a hugely important part of research into cancer treatment recently. Their ability to penetrate deep into the body, and the possiblity of using them as a platform for designing complex, multi-functional systems which can both detect, target, and destroy specific types of cancer cell, have proved very attractive to the research community.
Now, however, Shanta Dhar and her team at the University of Georgia have a fresh approach to the problem - harnessing the incredible power of the human body's own immune system to kill off cancer cells.
One of the main reasons cancer is so widespread and difficult to treat is that our immune systems cannot see it - cancer cells are mutated versions of our own cells, but they are not different enough to be recognized as harmful.
They have shown that nanoparticles can be used to activate a sample of the patient's cancer cells, making them recognizable by the body's own immune system.
This is similar in some ways to how vaccination works, by preparing your body to deal with a threat it doesn't recognize or doesn't know how to fight.
For the moment, the researchers are focusing on a specific type of breast cancer - however, they are hopeful that the methodology can be applied to other cancers as well.
The nanoparticles are designed to target the mitochondria in the cells - the biological "power plants" where glucose and oxygen is turned into energy for the cells to use. When added to a sample of cancer cells in a petri dish and activated with a laser, the nanoparticles prevent the mitochondria from working properly - starving the cells of the energy they need and eventually killing them.
Graduate student Sean Marrache and assistant professor Shanta Dhar. Image credit, University of Georgia.
The researchers then took dentritic cells from the patient, and exposed them to the dead cancer cells. Dendritic cells are one of the main tools the immune system uses to identify infections and shape the necessary immune response.
Promisingly, the dendritic cells became very active, producing large amounts of the chemical signals they use to inform the rest of the immune system about the presence of harmful bodies.
Whilst these results are preliminary, they are a good signal that this method could be a great way to tackle cancers - particularly complicated cases where the immune system itself is the ideal way to treat the disease.
"We particularly hope this technique could help patients with advanced metastatic disease that has spread to other parts of the body.
"These are the things we can now do with nanotechnology. If we can refine the process further, we may be able to use similar techniques against other forms of cancer as well."
- Shanta Dhar, University of Georgia