One of the reasons cancer is so deadly is that it can evade attack from the body's immune system, which allows tumors to flourish and spread. Scientists can try to induce the immune system, known as immunotherapy, to go into attack mode to fight cancer and to build long lasting immune resistance to cancer cells. Now, researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) show a non-surgical injection of programmable biomaterial that spontaneously assemblesin vivo into a 3D structure could fight and even help prevent cancer and also infectious disease such as HIV. Their findings are reported in Nature Biotechnology.
"We can create 3D structures using minimally-invasive delivery to enrich and activate a host's immune cells to target and attack harmful cells in vivo," said the study's senior author David Mooney, Ph.D., who is a Wyss Institute Core Faculty member and the Robert P. Pinkas Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard SEAS.
Tiny biodegradable rod-like structures made from silica, known as mesoporous silica rods (MSRs), can be loaded with biological and chemical drug components and then delivered by needle just underneath the skin. The rods spontaneously assemble at the vaccination site to form a three-dimensional scaffold, like pouring a box of matchsticks into a pile on a table. The porous spaces in the stack of MSRs are large enough to recruit and fill up with dendritic cells, which are "surveillance" cells that monitor the body and trigger an immune response when a harmful presence is detected.
"Nano-sized mesoporous silica particles have already been established as useful for manipulating individual cells from the inside, but this is the first time that larger particles, in the micron-sized range, are used to create a 3D in vivo scaffold that can recruit and attract tens of millions of immune cells," said co-lead author Jaeyun Kim, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University and a former Wyss Institute Postdoctoral Fellow.