Dr. Matthias Stephan has a bold vision. He imagines a future where patients with leukemia could be treated as early as the day they are diagnosed with cellular immunotherapy that’s available in their neighborhood clinic and is as simple to administer as today’s chemotherapy, but without the harsh side effects. The key to that scientific leap? Nanoparticles, tiny technology that’s able to carry tumor-targeting genes directly to immune cells still within the body and program them to destroy cancer. In a proof-of-principle study published Monday in Nature Nanotechnology, Stephan and other researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showed that nanoparticle-programmed immune cells, known as T cells, can clear or slow the progression of leukemia in a preclinical model.
“Our technology is the first that we know of to quickly program tumor-recognizing capabilities into T cells without extracting them for laboratory manipulation,” said Stephan, the study’s senior author. Although his method for programming T cells is still several steps away from the clinic, Stephan envisions a future in which biodegradable nanoparticles could transform cell-based immunotherapies — whether for cancer or infectious disease — into an easily administered, off-the-shelf treatment that’s available anywhere.
Stephan imagines that in the future, nanoparticle-based immunotherapy could be “something that is available right away and can hopefully out-compete chemotherapies. That’s my excitement.”