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Nanoparticles Could Train Immune System to Fight Cancer

Athens, Ga. - Researchers at the University of Georgia are developing a new treatment technique that uses nanoparticles to reprogram immune cells so they are able to recognize and attack cancer. The findings were published recently in the early online edition of ACS Nano.

Nanoparticles have been a hugely important part of research into cancer treatment recently. Their ability to penetrate deep into the body, and the possibility of using them as a platform for designing complex, multi-functional systems which can both detect, target, and destroy specific types of cancer cell, have proved very attractive to the research community. Now, however, Shanta Dhar and her team have a fresh approach to the problem - harnessing the incredible power of the human body's own immune system to kill off cancer cells.

One of the main reasons cancer is so widespread and difficult to treat is that our immune systems cannot see it - cancer cells are mutated versions of our own cells, but they are not different enough to be recognized as harmful.

They have shown that nanoparticles can be used to activate a sample of the patient's cancer cells, making them recognizable by the body's own immune system.

This is similar in some ways to how vaccination works, by preparing your body to deal with a threat it doesn't recognize or doesn't know how to fight.

For the moment, the researchers are focusing on a specific type of breast cancer - however, they are hopeful that the methodology can be applied to other cancers as well.

The nanoparticles are designed to target the mitochondria in the cells - the biological "power plants" where glucose and oxygen is turned into energy for the cells to use. When added to a sample of cancer cells in a petri dish and activated with a laser, the nanoparticles prevent the mitochondria from working properly - starving the cells of the energy they need and eventually killing them.

The researchers then took dendritic cells from the patient, and exposed them to the dead cancer cells. Dendritic cells are one of the main tools the immune system uses to identify infections and shape the necessary immune response.

Promisingly, the dendritic cells became very active, producing large amounts of the chemical signals they use to inform the rest of the immune system about the presence of harmful bodies.

Whilst these results are preliminary, they are a good signal that this method could be a great way to tackle cancers - particularly complicated cases where the immune system itself is the ideal way to treat the disease.


  • "UGA researchers use nanoparticles to fight cancer" - University of Georgia News Service
  • "Ex Vivo Programming of Dendritic Cells by Mitochondria-Targeted Nanoparticles to Produce Interferon-Gamma for Cancer Immunotherapy" - S. Marrache et al, ACS Nano 2013. DOI:10.1021/nn403158n
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