The insidious beauty of cancer is that it disguises itself as normal cells fooling the immune system until it can grow into proportions that are unmanageable or untreatable. Researchers have thought if they could help the immune system identify and fight cancer cells they could improve the patient’s prognosis.
Hope on that front could be on the way as a team of researchers at the University of Georgia, Athens, has developed a new technique that uses nanoparticles to reprogram immune cells so that they can recognize and attack cancer cells. The method has shown promise in early lab test and the researchers now are planning to expand their program.
The human body constantly fights off bacteria and viruses through the immune system, which keeps the invaders at bay. While good at its job, the immune system is not perfect.
Most cancerous cells, for example, avoid detection because they closely resemble normal cells, allowing the cancerous cells to multiply and grow into life threatening tumors while flying under the radar of the immune system. Shanta Dhar, a University of Georgia assistant professor of chemistry is using nanoparticles and laser light to give the immune system a leg up in its recognition of cancer cells.
“For the first time we can stimulate the immune system against breast cancer cells using mitochondria-targeted nanoparticles and light using a novel pathway,” Dhar says. “We are able to activate the immune system in a way it is not normally activated. This helps the body to naturally fight the cancer.”
In their experiments, Dhar and her colleagues exposed cancer cells in a petri dish to specially designed nanoparticles. The nanoparticles invade the cells and penetrate the mitochondria—the organelles responsible for producing the energy a cell needs to grow and replicate.
Then they activated the nanoparticles inside the cancer cells by exposing them to tissue penetrating long wavelength laser light. Once activated, the nanoparticles disrupt the cancer cells normal processes.
“After laser irradiation, a cascading effect of signals occur leading to cell death,” she explains. “This specialized cell death then releases special proteins and signals that immune cells can pick up.”