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Good InfoCancer Breakthrough Found to Boost Immune Cells Without Harmful Side-Effects By Directing...

Cancer Breakthrough Found to Boost Immune Cells Without Harmful Side-Effects By Directing Protein Cytokines

Cancer research team gathers around Luminex 200 machine used to analyze tumor cytokine levels – Virginia Tech / SWNS

A new way to safely boost immune cells to fight cancer—avoiding harmful side-effects such as hair loss—has been developed.

Scientists at Virginia Tech devised the ground-breaking immunotherapy to localize cancer-killing cytokines in tumors, improving the effectiveness of current treatments.

Immunotherapy involves harnessing the power of the body’s immune system to fight potentially deadly cancer cells. The researchers at the school’s College of Engineering have found a way to revamp a treatment procedure into an innovative practice.

Their approach involves activating the immune cells in the body and “reprogramming” them to attack and destroy the cancer cells.

The method is frequently implemented with the protein cytokine. Cytokines are small protein molecules that act as “intercellular biochemical messengers” and are released by the body’s immune cells to coordinate their response.

“Cytokines are potent and highly effective at stimulating the immune cells to eliminate cancer cells,” explained chemical engineering Professor Rong Tong (pictured above, left).

“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.”

Unlike previous methods, the new technique ensures that the immune cell-stimulating cytokines effectively localize within the tumors for weeks while preserving the cytokine’s structure and reactivity levels.

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Stimulating the body’s immune system to attack tumors has been for years a promising alternative to traditional cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, which can’t distinguish between healthy cells and cancer cells

Prof. Tong says the delivery of cytokines can “jump-start” immune cells in the tumor, but overstimulating healthy cells can also cause severe side effects.

“Scientists determined a while ago that cytokines can be used to activate and fight against tumors, but they didn’t know how to localize them inside the tumor while not exposing toxicity to the rest of the body.

“Chemical engineers can look at this from an engineering approach and use their knowledge to help refine and elevate the effectiveness of the cytokines so they can work inside the body effectively.”

The team’s goal was to strike a balance between killing cancer cells while sparing healthy cells, by creating specialized particles with distinctive sizes that help determine where the drug is going.

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The micro-particles are designed to stay within the tumor environment after being injected into the body.

Materials science and engineering Professor Wenjun ‘Rebecca’ Cai and her students worked on measuring the particles’ surface properties.

“Surface engineering and characterization, along with particle size, play important roles in controlled drug delivery, ensuring prolonged drug presence and sustained therapeutic effectiveness,” explained Prof. Tong.

“Our strategy not only minimizes cytokine-induced harm to healthy cells, but also prolongs cytokine retention within the tumor. This helps facilitate the recruitment of immune cells for targeted tumor attack.”

She says the next step involves combining the new, localized cytokine therapy method with commercially available, FDA-approved checkpoint blockade antibodies, which reactivate the tumor immune cells that have been silenced—so they can fight back the cancer cells.

“When there is a tumor inside the body, the body’s immune cells are being deactivated by the cancer cells.

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“The FDA-approved checkpoint blocking antibody helps ‘take off the brakes’ that tumors put on immune cells, while the cytokine molecules ‘step on the gas’ to jump-start the immune system and get an immune cell army to fight cancer cells. These two approaches work together to activate immune cells.”

Engineering a target to take down cancer cells

Combining the checkpoint antibodies with the particle-anchored cytokine proved to successfully eliminate many tumors in the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances.

The team believes the new approach of attaching cytokines to particles also could be used to deliver other types of immuno-stimulatory drugs.

“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.”

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Prof. Cai views their project as “a perfect marriage between chemical engineering and materials science”.

“This collaboration not only accelerates immunotherapy research, but also has the ability to transform cancer treatment.”

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