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Cellular “Backpacks” to Slow Tumor Growth

Cell therapy innovation keeps macrophages activated against cancer

Cellular “Backpacks” to Slow Tumor Growth
Nanoparticle “backpacks” (pink) attached to a macrophage cell release a steady stream of cytokines to keep the cell activated against cancerous tumors. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Macrophages are the body’s multipurpose defense agents, patrolling for pathogens and engulfing cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, and even cancer cells. But cancerous tumors have evolved an insidious defense mechanism: they can switch arriving macrophages from an anti-cancer state to a pro-cancer state, in which they help promote the tumor’s growth. As a result, attempts to use macrophages as cell therapy against cancer and other diseases have largely failed.

Scientists at the Wyss Institute have found a solution to this problem through the creation of cellular “backpacks” for macrophages: disc-shaped nanoparticles that can stick to a macrophage without being engulfed, and release a steady stream of cytokines into their macrophage “hosts” to keep them activated against cancer. When macrophages were incubated with backpacks in vitro and then injected into mice with lung cancer, they induced tumor-promoting macrophages in the animals’ tumors to revert back to an anti-cancer state, causing the tumors to shrink and increasing overall survival.

The physical properties and payloads of the backpacks can be tuned to enable them to attach to and influence the function of numerous cell types, improving the efficacy of cell therapies.

Potential applications

  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Vaccines
  • Tissue regeneration

A patent application has been filed for this technology, which is available for licensing.

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