T cells

The new cancer-fighting method uses the mechanical force of T cells


EPFL scientists have announced a cancer treatment method that destroys tumor cells using our bodies’ own T cells’ mechanical force. They have just concluded proof of concept for their novel immunotherapy plan.

Immunotherapy is a promising weapon in battling cancer.

Immunotherapy has proven its track record. It has come out to be much more useful than chemotherapy and radiotherapy in treating some cancers. The only drawback is that it can treat only around 20% of patients; the remaining 80% do not respond positively to this type of treatment. According to Li Tang, who is currently serving as the head of EPFL’s Laboratory of Biomaterials for Immunoengineering, “if doctors use a stronger form of immunotherapy to treat more people, it could lead to side effects by becoming more toxic for some people.”

Li Tang and his team of scientists are developing a method in which by focussing immunotherapy only on tumor cells, the treatments will be more effective and less harmful to the body as a whole. Materials Horizons has recently published Li Tang and his scientists’ approach as a cover story.

What is Immunotherapy?

Immunotherapy treats cancer by helping your immune system in fighting cancer. The immune system consists of white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system.

Immunotherapy is a biological therapy that treats cancer by using substances made from living organisms to treat cancer.

Cancer immunotherapy comes in various forms, including targeted antibodies, cancer vaccines, adoptive cell transfer, tumor-infecting viruses, checkpoint inhibitors, cytokines, and adjuvants.

Some immunotherapy treatments utilize genetic engineering to improve immune cells’ cancer-fighting capabilities and are known as gene therapies. Apart from preventing, managing, or treating different cancers, we can use many immunotherapy treatments combined with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapies to improve their effectiveness.

How does immunotherapy work against cancer?

When functioning normally, the immune system detects and destroys abnormal cells and most likely prevents or restricts many cancers’ growth. For example, immune cells are sometimes are present around tumors. These cells, called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes or TILs, sign that the immune system is responding to cancer. People whose tumors contain TILs do better than people whose tumors don’t have them.

Although the immune system can block or delay cancer growth, cancer cells can avoid destruction by the immune system in specific ways. For example, cancer cells may:

  • Change themselves genetically, which makes them less apparent to the immune system.
  • By having proteins on their surface that turn off immune cells
  • Changing the tumor’s normal cells can meddle with how the immune system responds to the cancer cells.

Immunotherapy acts against cancer by helping the immune system.

Which cancers can immunotherapy treat?

Scientists have approved Immunotherapy drugs to cure several types of cancer. However, immunotherapy is not yet as broadly used as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.

Immunotherapy can treat advanced lung cancer, with or without combining conventional treatments like chemotherapy or surgery. Some FDA-approved immunotherapies extend treatment options to children and adults with Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Side effects of immunotherapy

Immunotherapy can cause side-effects, many of which happen when the immune system that acts against cancer also works against healthy cells and tissues in your body.

Some side effects are familiar with all types of immunotherapy. For example, skin reactions at the needle site, which include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Soreness
  • Redness
  • Itchiness
  • Rash

A T-cell booster

Nature has gifted us special cells in our immune system that destroys cancer cells. These cells are called T cells.

By adequately administering drugs with the help of immunotherapy, we can make those cells more powerful. “On coming in contact with cancer cells, T cells destroy these cells by discharging chemical compounds as well as applying mechanical force,” explains Tang. The drugs have to be delivered accurately throughout this step for immunotherapy to work with limited patient toxicity.

The currently prevailing immunotherapy treatments use biochemical signals to control the drug-release process. “But it’s not effective as doctors have no control over how a drug diffuses within the body,” says Tang. To resolve this problem, his team developed a method that uses a biomechanical signal, which implies that drugs are released only when T cells come into contact with cancer cells. “The T cells’ mechanical force is only triggered when they are touching their target cells,” he says.

Releasing drugs by breaking DNA

Tang’s strategy includes utilizing a silica microparticle that contains heaps of tiny holes. By putting the medication inside the gaps and covering them with double-strand DNA completes the process.

“We picked DNA since T cells can break the double-helix strands,” says Tang. At the point when a T cell comes into contact with the microparticle, its mechanical power consequently breaks the DNA—along these lines delivering the medication.

“We’ve only just finished the proof of concept stage. We’ve indicated that our thought works; however, we need to build up the innovation further before we can begin directing clinical preliminaries,” says Tang. In the long run, Tang wants to build up a dual-agent process whereby the T cell connects to a nanoparticle that comes into contact with the cancer cell. That implies the drug would be released by the T cell, making it more efficient in destroying tumors.

Tang’s lab is the first to utilize the mechanical power of T cells in immunotherapy applications. “If our discovery builds the percentage of patients who react to immunotherapy by even one percentage point, at that point, we’ll have met the challenge,” he says.

The scientific journal Materials Horizons gave its Emerging Investigator Award to Professor Li Tang for his research publication. “From a list of eligible articles, the Editorial Board select an early-career researcher in materials science who identifies to have the potential to influence future directions in the field every month. According to the professor, this award is excellent recognition for his team and lab’s work in the innovative investigation at the interface of cancer immunotherapy and material engineering.

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