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Conquering cancer with implants? Bioengineered vaccines and magnetic nanodiscs show promise

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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cancer vaccine implantRather than surgically removing tumors, what if doctors could simply implant new tools in our bodies to do the work internally? One team of researchers has been able to vanquish tumors in mice by implanting bioengineered disks filled with tumor-specific antigens, and another has developed magnetized nanodiscs to induce cancer cells to destroy themselves. 

Numerous cancer vaccines have shown promise in animal models only to later fail to generate results in humans. But an implant-based approach may hold the key, according to a team of immunologists and bioengineers at Harvard University. They designed a tiny polymer disk saturated with dendritic cells and antigens specifically tuned to go after tumor cells. The results, published online November 25 in Science Translational Medicine, show "the power of applying engineering approaches to immunology," David Mooney, a professor of bioengineering ant Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said in a prepared statement.

The principal is the same as a vaccine: prompt the immune system to attack invading cells. However, unlike previously tested injected cancer vaccines, cells from the disk are less prone to die before they can get the job done.

The 8.5-millimeter biodegradable disk can be "inserted anywhere under the skin—much like the implantable contraceptives that can be placed in a woman’s arm," Mooney said. "The implants activate an immune response that destroys tumor cells." When the disks were implanted in mice with melanoma, the treatment led to remission and longer lives in "a substantial portion of the population," the authors reported.

Another trick to zapping cancer cells may lie in nano-scale magnets. Previous studies have investigated the use of magnetic fields to kill cancer cells via hyperthermia, but they required a lot more power than the new method and proved to have some dangerous side effects.

A new study, published November 29 in Nature Materials, reports promise in a scaled-down version of this idea to tackle tumors. "Nanomagnetic materials offer exciting avenues for probing cell mechanics and…advancing cancer therapies," the paper authors wrote. Using nanodiscs (about 60 nanometers thick) made of iron and nickel, researchers based in the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine have created a so-called "magnetic vortex" in the magnetic alloy with the magnetic charge arranged in concentric circles. "Integration of magnetic materials with biological molecules and therapeutics creates hybrid materials with advanced properties," the authors noted in the paper. 

By introducing an alternating magnetic field, researchers made the discs oscillate, thereby damaging the membranes of cancer cells in the lab and causing the cells to die. The researchers needed only a frequency of "a few tens of hertz applied for only 10 minutes" to "achieve cancer-cell destruction in vitro," they wrote. With this approach they rely on neither heat nor mechanical assault, but rather on the oscillation "which triggers the programmed cell-death pathway" via an ionic electrical signal, the authors explained. Thus, "the total energy necessary to accomplish cell death is minute."

While these innovative implant technologies are being tested in the lab, however, cancer continues to be one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. (second only to heart disease), killing more than half a million people last year.

Image of polymer matrix (next to dime for size comparison) courtesy of InCytu, Inc.





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  1. 1. gamelady51 8:00 pm 11/29/2009

    How soon can this be tested on humans? Is there a chance that the "cell death" would affect regular cells as well as cancer cells? I’m very interested in knowing more about the progress of this discovery. Thanks, Nan

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  2. 2. keisha1989 9:17 pm 11/29/2009

    Hi, i think this is very interesting and beneficial to have but does it really work on humans to sustain optimum health.
    My Aunt is very sick with Cervical Cancer and i really do not know what else to do to help her. I can only do so much! If you can please give me more information on this new invention as well as finding a cure.

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  3. 3. ellen47 12:34 am 11/30/2009

    Is information available about what cancers this treatment may be effective against and when and where human trials may begin?

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  4. 4. phadrus 1:02 am 11/30/2009

    Does anyone else see a connection between this research and the effects of powerline and transmitted electomagnetic energy? It seems that some studies should be revisted.

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  5. 5. rizzostar 1:50 am 11/30/2009

    Hi..
    research Dr. lorraine Day MD . You will be very appy you did. Good luck and god bless your aunt.

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  6. 6. JamesDavis 7:26 am 11/30/2009

    keisha1989: These are remarkable advancements and most needed, but they will be at least ten years in testing. Do some research on the bark from the Pacific Ewe Tree. It has been clamed that it can cure and put in remission fourteen different kinds of cancer, including the one your aunt suffers from. The AMA will not allow doctore in the US use that finding because they said they cannot regulate plants. I wish your aunt a speedy recovery.

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  7. 7. Tom O H 12:40 pm 11/30/2009

    What happens after the discs have run their course? Wouldnt they cause granulomas and/or Iron poisoning???
    @ Rizzostar RE Dr. lorraine Day,
    Get the f**k outta here!! Shes a f**king quack!!!! This is supposed to be a SCIENTIFIC website.

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  8. 8. vn 7:51 pm 11/30/2009

    The approach showed high anticancer efficiency in vitro; animal tests are needed prior to medical applications. The disks are made biocompatible (gold coated iron), in principle there shouldn’t be problems with filtering the disks from the body naturally.

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  9. 9. ehclec 5:07 am 12/1/2009

    I am interested in this new discovery. When will the first human testing to occur?

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  10. 10. sisters for all 12:03 am 12/30/2009

    My sister has 4th. stage small cell lung cancer. She has been in chemo for almost a year & she continues to worsen. We would like to know about trials she might be able to join in, or any other info that might be helpful to her.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Macrocompassion 11:13 am 12/31/2009

    News of this kind stimulates treminal cancer patients to want immediate access to it! It might not be such a bad thing if the hospital and doctors involved were to allow such trials to proceed even though it is not exactly fair to apply such a test result for deciding on the effectiveness of the treatment. Still it might save a few lives….

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