A vaccine for cancer and HIV? Sounds too good to be true, but yes, its on its way. A team of researchers have successfully developed what seems to be a programmable material that can spontaneously assemble itself into a 3-D structure inside a living organism and help the immune system of the body fight cancer and HIV and several other diseases.
These biodegradable rods, also known as mesoporous silica rods, basically work by delivering drugs via an injection. When these drugs reach the vaccination site, they spontaneously assemble themselves in a 3-D structure- much similar to a structure that is formed when a handful of matchsticks are piled up on a table.
Millions of dendritic cells of the body then move in towards this structure and take space inside the nooks and corners of this structure. They then monitor the body, and when a harmful presence is detected, they trigger an immune response.
“We can create 3D structures using minimally-invasive delivery to enrich and activate a host’s immune cells to target and attack harmful cells in vivo,” says the study’s senior author David Mooney, PhD, who is a Wyss Institute Core Faculty member and the Robert P. Pinkas Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).
This study is the first one that uses these unique scaffolds to generate a immune response. The researchers also make sure that when they construct these rods in the lab, they leave many small holes known as nanopores and load it with drugs to target the infectious agent, which further helps the immune system fight against it. “Although right now we are focusing on developing a cancer vaccine, in the future we could be able to manipulate which type of dendritic cells or other types of immune cells are recruited to the 3D scaffold by using different kinds of cytokines released from the MSRs,” says co-lead author Aileen Li, a graduate student pursuing her PhD in bioengineering at Harvard SEAS.
While further studies will be required to confirm the efficacy of this new vaccine in humans, it has already been found ‘highly effective’ in mouse models.
The researchers also believe that this vaccine may not just treat cancer, HIV and other diseases, but also prevent them. “Injectable immunotherapies that use programmable biomaterials as a powerful vehicle to deliver targeted treatment and preventative care could help fight a whole range of deadly infections, including common worldwide killers like HIV and Ebola, as well as cancer,” Dr. Donald Ingber, PhD, Wyss Institute Founding Director and professor of Bioengineering at Harvard SEAS, says.
These injectable 3D vaccines offer a minimally invasive and scalable way to deliver therapies that work by mimicking the body’s own powerful immune response in diseases that have previously been able to skirt immune detection.”