The human body is normally great at fighting off diseases. A particular type of white blood cell called macrophages are programmed to attack and destroy any foreign invader they come across, and they’re generally great at their jobs. But they aren’t so effective when it comes to cancer. This is because cancer is made out of the same stuff that the rest of the body is. Even though cancer cells act different than our normal cells do, they’re still our cells, made by our bodies, and they emit special “don’t eat me” signals, which causes macrophages to have difficulty recognizing them as foreign invaders and fighting them off.
Many cancer treatments focus on introducing an outside force of some sort to combat cancer, whether it be through a chemotherapy chemical, radiation, or the physical removal of cancer cells via surgery. But some therapies, particularly immunotherapy, aim to work with the body to tackle cancer. This method requires a one-of-a-kind approach for each patient, but if the result is a cancer-free patient, then the extra work is definitely worth the effort.
“Clinicians are increasingly realizing that one drug or a one-size-fits-all approach is not enough when combating cancer, and that a combination immunotherapy, such as blocking two distinct targets in the same immune cell, is the future of immuno-oncology,” says Ashish Kulkarni, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who led the study. “Our approach capitalizes on this concept.”
Recently, scientists working in immunotherapy methods have developed a “supramolecule” made up of smaller molecules that fit together to form a larger molecule. This molecule blocks the signals from cancer cells that tell macrophages to become more docile and not “consume” the cancer cells.
In laboratory studies performed on mice, the supramolecular technology appeared to completely stop the growth and spread of skin and breast cancer. “We [could] actually see macrophages eating cancer cells,” says another of the study’s authors, Shiladitya Sengupta, an associate bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
The researchers’ findings were published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. Their immunotherapy drug is still in pre-clinical testing and needs to be further researched for safety and appropriate dosage, but it has been showing unique promise in its ability to aid the body in killing off cancer. Researchers hope their treatment will be used alongside other therapies, such as checkpoint inhibitors, to produce maximum cancer-fighting results.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?