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Reprogramming the immune system to attack cancer cells

Cancer is a pervasive, complex disease responsible for weak immune systems, countless deaths, and untold suffering. Yet, there’s hope on the horizon. Scientists are tirelessly unraveling cancer’s mysteries.

One such breakthrough is immunotherapy, a cutting-edge approach that uses the body’s own defenses to wage war against cancer cells. Researchers at Virginia Tech are at the forefront of this research, developing a new type of immunotherapy with the potential to save lives.

Immune system and cancer

Our immune system is a complex defense network made up of different cell types and organs. It works constantly to detect and eliminate threats, including harmful bacteria and viruses.

Cancer cells, unfortunately, develop ways to disguise themselves or suppress the immune system’s response. This allows them to grow and spread unchecked.

Immunotherapy aims to outsmart cancer by enhancing the immune system’s ability to recognize and destroy cancer cells. It introduces substances that either directly boost immune cells or remove the disguises cancer cells use to hide.

Unlike chemotherapy, which targets all rapidly dividing cells (both healthy and cancerous), immunotherapy is more precise. This often results in fewer harsh side effects for patients.

The challenge with immunotherapy

Cytokines are small proteins that act as communication signals within the immune system. They play a critical role in coordinating the immune response, attracting and activating various immune cells to fight against threats.

“Cytokines are potent and highly effective at stimulating the immune cells to eliminate cancer cells,” said Professor Rong Tong. “The problem is they’re so potent that if they roam freely throughout the body, they’ll activate every immune cell they encounter, which can cause an overactive immune response and potentially fatal side effects.”

The goal of scientists was to harness the power of cytokines to fight cancer while minimizing their potential side effects. This involved developing a method to deliver cytokines specifically to the tumor site, preventing their uncontrolled spread throughout the body.

Researchers at Virginia Tech addressed this challenge with their innovative localized cytokine therapy approach, providing a more targeted and controlled way to boost the immune system against cancer.

Immune systems anchored cytokines against cancer

Dr. Tong teamed up with Dr. Wenjun “Rebecca” Cai to engineer a revolutionary approach to localized cytokine therapy. They developed tiny particles designed to carry the cytokine proteins directly to the tumor. These particles act as specialized delivery vehicles.

The particles are engineered with “anchors” – molecules on their surface that can bind specifically to components within the tumor. After injection, these anchors help the particles attach themselves firmly within the tumor environment.

The anchoring mechanism ensures that the cytokines remain primarily within the tumor. This prevents them from spreading throughout the body, minimizing potential harm to healthy cells, while allowing them to send powerful signals to attract immune cells to the tumor site.

Combination therapy

Now, this alone is a remarkable advancement, but the researchers went one step further. They paired their anchored cytokine system with FDA-approved therapies called checkpoint blockade antibodies.

Cancer cells can develop mechanisms to suppress or deactivate immune cells, essentially disabling their ability to fight back. Checkpoint blockade antibodies target these mechanisms, re-activating the immune cells so they can attack the cancer.

The anchored cytokines act as a powerful amplifier, attracting large numbers of immune cells to the tumor site and enhancing their cancer-fighting capabilities.

This combined approach creates a synergistic effect – checkpoint blockade antibodies take away cancer’s defenses, while the cytokines rally a powerful immune attack. Studies have demonstrated the significant success of this strategy in eliminating tumors.

The future of cancer treatment

This research is a tremendous leap forward in the field of immunotherapy, potentially leading to safer and more successful cancer treatments. It also opens doors for the development of similar delivery systems for other potent immune-boosting drugs.

“Researchers are still looking for safer and more effective cancer treatments,” said Tong. “This motivation is what drives us to develop new technologies in the field. The whole class of drugs that are employed to jump-start the immune system to fight cancer cells has largely not yet succeeded. Our goal is to create novel solutions that allow researchers to test these drugs with existing FDA-approved therapeutics, ensuring both safety and enhanced efficacy.”

The Virginia Tech researchers’ dedication epitomizes the ongoing battle against cancer. While there’s much work still ahead, projects like this provide immense hope that someday cancer will be a word that loses its terrifying power.

“I view this project as a perfect marriage between chemical engineering and materials science,” Cai said. “The former focuses on the synthesis and drug delivery part, the latter on applying advanced materials characterization. This collaboration not only accelerates immunotherapy research, but also has the ability to transform cancer treatment.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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