Antigen-Capturing Nanotechnology Could Help Combat Cancer in a New Way

Using sticky nanoparticles, researchers have discovered a strategy to improve the immune system's detection of cancer proteins in order to optimize the effectiveness of immunotherapy.

It may soon be possible to use nanotechnology to target and destroy mutated proteins produced by dying cancer cells. Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center report that the immune system can detect these proteins and kill cancer in other parts of the body using these protein markers as a guide.

In the journal Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers report on a strategy to improve the immune system's detection of cancer proteins by using sticky nanoparticles (antigen-capturing nanoparticles [AC-NPs])They believe these particles could work synergistically with immunotherapy drugs designed to boost the immune system’s response to cancer.

“This is a different way to utilize nanoparticles. Nanoparticles have been studied to deliver drugs and the results are mixed,” said the study’s senior author Andrew Wang, MD, an associate professor at the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

He said the major points from this current study as they pertain to oncologists are that nanoparticles are intrinsically immunogenic, and it is possible to take advantage of this specific property. “Nanoparticles are excellent at antigen presentation. Nanoparticles are synergistic with current cancer immunotherapy approaches and can increase the effectiveness of these clinical agents,” said Dr. Wang.

Study co-author Jonathan Serody, MD, associate director for translational research at UNC, said it is theorized that tumors accumulate large numbers of mutations across their genomes, and those mutated genes can make mutant proteins. However, there is no system that controls the immune system’s response to new proteins.

Using preclinical melanoma models, Dr. Wang and his team found that 20% of mice who received this nanoparticle treatment had a complete response, compared with none of the mice who did not receive the nanoparticles. The researchers found that the nanoparticles are taken up by immune cells and trafficked to the lymph nodes. They also observed that the nanoparticles not only increase the number of T cells but also improve the immune response to cancer.

Dr. Wang said if fully clinically translated, this will change cancer immunotherapy.  He noted that this technology has the potential to improve the efficiency of cancer immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors, and could mean better outcomes in a number patients with a host of tumor types.

“The AC-NPs are highly effective and significantly improve the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors,” Dr. Wang told OncoTherapy Network. “We are looking to commercialize this technology. The best case scenario is clinical trials in 2 years.”