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By Te-Wei Chu

Te-Wei ChuScientists have not cured cancer yet, and conventional anticancer medications continue to result in adverse side effects for many patients. For instance, chemotherapeutics cause damage not only to the cancer but also to healthy tissue. Immunotherapy, which recruits the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, is a new hope. Unfortunately, many patients respond poorly to such treatment in diseases such as lymphoma.

Our group at the University of Utah, led by Jindřich Kopeček, has introduced a new cancer treatment strategy that could avoid the side effects of conventional drugs and potentially improve the response rate of patients. This biomimetic approach is inspired by the fact that when some surface proteins of cancer cells are “cross-linked” (bound to each other), this event triggers cancer cell suicide (apoptosis). We designed a therapeutic platform composed of a pair of matching nanomaterials that meet up on the surface of cancer cells. The two nanomaterials sequentially bind to the surface proteins and bring them into close proximity to cross-link with their neighbors, tricking the cancer cells into killing themselves.

We have proven this concept successful in non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a prevalent blood cancer. The designed therapeutics can effectively induce lymphoma cell death without the use of small molecule drugs (which are often toxic and harmful to the body). To test the therapy, mice bearing human lymphomas were injected with the nanomaterial pair. The treatment successfully depleted tumors and extended the animal survival.

The therapeutic platform we established may become a new paradigm of treatment: The anticancer effect is independent of the function of the immune system. We aim to improve the response rate of patients for immunotherapies by using synthetic materials for direct apoptosis induction. The chemical flexibility when producing these nanomaterials allows further optimization of the therapeutic efficacy and enables broad applications in other diseases.

We will present the findings of this study at the 2014 AAPS National Biotechnology Conference (Wednesday, May 21, noon PDT). Learn more about this exciting research by viewing his abstract, no. M1012, through the NBC app online or via your mobile device.

Te-Wei Chu is a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, and the current chair of the AAPS University of Utah Student Chapter.