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ancers are notorious for secreting chemicals that confuse the immune system and thwart biological defenses. To counter that effect, some cancer treatments try to neutralize the cancer's chemical arsenal and boost a patient's immune response, though attempts to do both at the same time are rarely successful.
Now, researchers have developed a novel system to simultaneously deliver a sustained dose of both an immune-system booster and a chemical to counter the cancer's secretions, resulting in a powerful therapy that, in mice, delayed tumor growth, sent tumors into remission, and dramatically increased survival rates. The researchers, led by Tarek Fahmy of Yale University, reported their findings in the journal Nature Materials.
The nanotechnology-based immunotherapy incorporates two well-studied drugs into nanolipogels (NLGs), a new drug transport technology that Dr. Fahmy and his colleagues designed. The NLGs are nanoscale, hollow, biodegradable spheres, each one capable of accommodating large quantities of chemically diverse molecules. The spheres appear to accumulate in the leaky vasculature, or blood vessels, of tumors, releasing their cargo in a controlled, sustained fashion as the sphere walls and scaffolding break down in the bloodstream.
For the recent experiments, the NLGs contained two components: an inhibitor drug that counters a particularly potent cancer defense called transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β), and interleukin-2 (IL-2), a protein that rallies immune systems to respond to localized threats. "You can think of the tumor and its microenvironment as a castle and a moat," says Dr. Fahmy. "The castles are cancerous tumors, which have evolved a highly intelligent structure - the tumor cells and vasculature. The moat is the cancer's defense system, which includes TGF-β. Our strategy is to dry-up that moat by neutralizing the TGF-β. We do that using the inhibitor that is released from the nanolipogels. The inhibitor effectively stops the tumor's ability to stunt an immune response."
At the same time, the researchers boost the immune response in the region surrounding the tumor by delivering IL-2, a cytokine protein that stimulates protective cells, in the same drug delivery vehicle. "The cytokine can be thought of as a way to get reinforcements to cross the dry moat into the castle and signal for more forces to come in," adds Dr. Fahmy. In this case, the reinforcements are T cells. By accomplishing both treatment goals at once, the body has a greater chance to defeat the cancer.
The current study targeted both primary melanomas and melanomas that have spread to the lung, demonstrating promising results with a cancer that is well-suited to immunotherapy and for which radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery tend to prove unsuccessful, particularly when metastatic. The researchers did not evaluate primary lung cancers in this study.
One problem with current metastatic melanoma immunotherapies is the difficulty managing autoimmune toxicities when the treatment agents are administered throughout the body. The novel nanolipogel delivery system used to administer IL-2 and an immune modulator for blocking the cytokine TGF-β will hopefully bypass systemic toxicities while providing support to enable the body to fight off the tumor at the tumor bed itself.
Critical to the treatment's success is the ability to package two completely different kinds of molecules - large, water-soluble proteins like IL-2 and tiny, water-phobic molecules like the TGF-β inhibitor-into a single package. To accomplish this task, the NGL consists of two simple-to-manufacture, yet highly functional parts. The outer shell of each NLG is made from an FDA-approved, biodegradable, synthetic lipid that the researchers selected because it is safe, degrades in a controlled manner, is sturdy enough to encapsulate a drug-scaffolding complex, and easily forms a spherical shell.
Each shell surrounds a matrix made from biocompatible, biodegradable polymers that the engineers had already impregnated with the tiny TGF-β inhibitor molecules. The researchers then soaked those near-complete spheres in a solution containing IL-2, which gets entrapped within the scaffolding, a process called remote loading. The end result is a nanoscale drug delivery vehicle that appears to fit the narrow parameters necessary for successful treatment. Each NLG is small enough to travel through the bloodstream, yet large enough to get entrapped in leaky cancer blood vessels.
About The National Cancer Institute (NCI)
To help meet the goal of reducing the burden of cancer, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, is engaged in efforts to harness the power of nanotechnology to radically change the way we diagnose, treat and prevent cancer.
The NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer is a comprehensive, systematized initiative encompassing the public and private sectors, designed to accelerate the application of the best capabilities of nanotechnology to cancer.
Currently, scientists are limited in their ability to turn promising molecular discoveries into benefits for cancer patients. Nanotechnology can provide the technical power and tools that will enable those developing new diagnostics, therapeutics, and preventives to keep pace with today’s explosion in knowledge.
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