Not too long ago in late January, a team of bioengineers from Vanderbilt University announced a major breakthrough in cancer fighting treatments and found early success using it on human melanoma tissue. They’ve designed a nanoparticle that penetrates tumor-infiltrating immune cells and flips on a switch that tells them to start fighting.
“Tumors are pretty conniving and have evolved many ways to evade detection from our immune system,” said John T. Wilson, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and biomedical engineering. “Our goal is to rearm the immune system with the tools it needs to destroy cancer cells.
“Checkpoint blockade has been a major breakthrough, but despite the huge impact it continues to have, we also know that there are a lot of patients who don’t respond to these therapies.”
The nanoparticle was designed to find tumors and deliver a molecule called cGAMP which is naturally produced by our bodies to fight cancer. The molecule works by switching on a mechanism the body uses to mount an immune response that can fight viruses, bacteria, or clear out malignant cells known as the stimulator of interferon genes (STING) pathway. Once started, the STING pathway generates T-cells from inside the tumor that will not only destroy it, but also improves the responses to checkpoint blockade.
The process began by designing a nanoparticle, built using polymers that respond to changes in pH that were engineered to increase the effectiveness of cGAMP. After almost two dozen iterations, the team found one that could deliver cGAMP and activate STING efficiently in mice, and eventually human tissue samples.
Although their work focused on melanoma, Vanderbilt’s research could be effective against many different types of cancers. Their findings appeared in a paper titled “Endosomolytic Polymersomes Increase the Activity of Cyclic Dinucleotide STING Agonists to Enhance Cancer Immunotherapy” in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Their research is very promising and one day soon could be implemented successfully in patients.