New technique uses immune cells to deliver anti-cancer drugs

January 4, 2017
Artist's conception of nanoparticle-carrying immune cells that target tumors and release drug-loaded nanoparticles for cancer treatment. Credit: Jian Yang, Yixue Su, Penn State

Some researchers are working to discover new, safer ways to deliver cancer-fighting drugs to tumors without damaging healthy cells. Others are finding ways to boost the body's own immune system to attack cancer cells. Researchers at Penn State have combined the two approaches by taking biodegradable polymer nanoparticles encapsulated with cancer-fighting drugs and incorporating them into immune cells to create a smart, targeted system to attack cancers of specific types.

"The traditional way to deliver drugs to tumors is to put the drug inside some type of nanoparticle and inject those particles into the bloodstream," said Jian Yang, professor of , Penn State. "Because the particles are so small, if they happen to reach the tumor site they have a chance of penetrating through the blood vessel wall because the vasculature of tumors is usually leaky."

The odds of interacting with can be improved by coating the outside of the nanoparticles with antibodies or certain proteins or peptides that will lock onto the cancer cell when they make contact. However, this is still a passive drug delivery technology. If the particle does not go to the tumor, there is no chance for it to bind and deliver the drug.

Yang and Cheng Dong, department head and distinguished professor of biomedical engineering, wanted a more active method of sending drugs to the cancer wherever it was located, whether circulating in the blood, the brain, or any of the other organs of the body.

"I have 10 years of working in immunology and cancer," Dong said. "Jian is more a biomaterials scientist. He knows how to make the nanoparticles biodegradable. He knows how to modify the particles with surface chemistry, to decorate them with peptides or antibodies. His material is naturally fluorescent, so you can track the particles at the same time they are delivering the drug, a process called theranostics that combines therapy and diagnostics. On the other hand, I study the cancer microenvironment, and I have discovered that the microenvironment of the tumor generates kinds of inflammatory signals similar to what would happen if you had an infection."

Immune cells, which were built to respond to inflammatory signals, will be naturally attracted to the tumor site. This makes immune cells a perfect active delivery system for Yang's nanoparticles. The same technology is also likely to be effective for infectious or other diseases, as well as for tissue regeneration, Dong said.

In the first proof of their technology, the two research groups targeted circulating melanoma cells. In a paper published in the current online issue of the journal Small, titled "Immune Cell-Mediated Biodegradable Theranostic Nanoparticles for Melanoma Targeting," the researchers report the use of a novel biodegradable and photoluminescent poly(lactic acid) nanoparticle, loaded with melanoma-specific drugs with immune cells as the nanoparticle carriers. They showed that the could bind to the melanoma cells under shear stress conditions similar to those in the bloodstream. These experiments were all performed in the laboratory. Next they intend to perform studies in animal models and in solid tumors.

"This is the first study and is just to show that the technology works," Dong said. "This study is not about curing melanoma. There are probably other ways to do that. We used to validate the approach."

In addition to corresponding authors Cheng Dong and Jian Yang, co-lead authors are Zhiwei Xie, postdoctoral scholar in Yang's group, Yixue Su, a master's student in Yang's group, and Gloria Kim, a Ph.D. student advised by both Yang and Dong. Other contributors are Erhan Selvi, an undergraduate researcher in Dong's lab, Chuying Ma, a Ph.D. student in Yang's lab, Virginia Aragon-Sanabria, a Ph.D. student in Dong's lab, and Jer-Tsong Hsieh, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation supported this work. Both Dong and Yang are also associates of Penn State's Materials Research Institute and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.

Explore further: Researcher turns sights on prostate cancer, tissue engineering, and blood vessel repair

Related Stories

Researcher turns sights on prostate cancer, tissue engineering, and blood vessel repair

February 3, 2014
When biology and materials science converge, the results can be new materials that can be used to deliver targeted drugs, repair damaged arteries or rebuild failing tissues, such as the anterior cruciate ligament, the ACL ...

Fighting cancer with the power of immunity

October 24, 2016
Harnessing the body's own immune system to destroy tumors is a tantalizing prospect that has yet to realize its full potential. However, a new advance from MIT may bring this strategy, known as cancer immunotherapy, closer ...

Recommended for you

Shooting the achilles heel of nervous system cancers

July 20, 2017
Virtually all cancer treatments used today also damage normal cells, causing the toxic side effects associated with cancer treatment. A cooperative research team led by researchers at Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center ...

Molecular changes with age in normal breast tissue are linked to cancer-related changes

July 20, 2017
Several known factors are associated with a higher risk of breast cancer including increasing age, being overweight after menopause, alcohol intake, and family history. However, the underlying biologic mechanisms through ...

Immune-cell numbers predict response to combination immunotherapy in melanoma

July 20, 2017
Whether a melanoma patient will better respond to a single immunotherapy drug or two in combination depends on the abundance of certain white blood cells within their tumors, according to a new study conducted by UC San Francisco ...

Discovery could lead to better results for patients undergoing radiation

July 19, 2017
More than half of cancer patients undergo radiotherapy, in which high doses of radiation are aimed at diseased tissue to kill cancer cells. But due to a phenomenon known as radiation-induced bystander effect (RIBE), in which ...

Definitive genomic study reveals alterations driving most medulloblastoma brain tumors

July 19, 2017
The most comprehensive analysis yet of medulloblastoma has identified genomic changes responsible for more than 75 percent of the brain tumors, including two new suspected cancer genes that were found exclusively in the least ...

Novel CRISPR-Cas9 screening enables discovery of new targets to aid cancer immunotherapy

July 19, 2017
A novel screening method developed by a team at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center—using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology to test the function of thousands of tumor genes in mice—has ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.