Researchers at Harvard University and the Wyss Institute are developing an injectable biomaterial that forms a tiny scaffold in the body which can be used to re-program cells and trigger an immune response to fight cancer and infectious diseases. Ben Gruber Reports.
STORY: Aileen Li fills a syringe with a saline solution that contains tiny rods made of silica. Those rods form the basis of a new method to fight everything from cancer to ebola in the human body. David Mooney, a professor of bioengineering at Harvard, says the human immune system is the most efficient weapon on the planet to fight disease, but that sometimes it needs to be activated to respond to threats. That's where these rods come in. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID MOONEY, PROFESSOR OF BIOENGINEERING, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "One could inject these through a needle because they are so small and then after they were in the body they would be present in a fluid, in a saline solution or a salt solution and as that salt solution dissipated into the surrounding tissue, these particles would then collapse on each other and form this three dimensional structure." That three dimensional structure is basically a makeshift laboratory which takes shape inside the body. First this tiny lab plays the role of a trap, releasing drug molecules that were implanted into nano-pores fitted on the rods to attract immune cells to the structure. Aileen Li says it's like attracting a mouse with cheese. (SOUNDBITE) (English) AILEEN LI, RESEARCHER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We utilize these nano-pores to release a factor that brings about millions and millions of immune cells to this local 3D structure and there the cells reside in the pores that are formed between the micro-particles and they are able to be then subsequently programed to do their job." At this point the tiny lab turns into a factory where these cells are reprogrammed and fitted with proteins designed to trigger an immune response in the body. (SOUNDBITE) (English) AILEEN LI, RESEARCHER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "They will then migrate away from the scaffold and go to the nearest lymph node and there they instruct the t-cells and b-cells to proliferate." (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID MOONEY, PROFESSOR OF BIOENGINEERING, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "And then your immune system will increase or multiply this effect at several different steps as you move down the immune response." And that's when the body kicks into action to start combating disease and infection. In animal studies, the research has proven highly effective. David Mooney says it still take years of research to translate their early successes in animal models into therapies for humans. But he's hopeful that his tiny cell factories will become a powerful weapon in the fight against cancer and infectious diseases.