Using immunotherapy to stimulate or enhance a person’s own immune system to fight cancer is not a new concept, but scientists are taking it one step further by using nanoscience and computer simulations to improve existing treatments.
A new computer simulation that mimics the body’s response when exposed to certain immunotherapy drugs could speed up development by eliminating any ineffective ideas at an earlier stage.
Immunotherapy drugs are specifically designed to help the immune system respond to cancerous cells, something that it doesn’t naturally do, since cancer cells are the body’s own cells and the immune system is programmed not to target native cells.
Scientists on the EU-funded MODICELL project have developed prototype software that can trial potential recipes for drugs by using a kind of graphic interface called reactive animation to demonstrate the body’s expected response.
Dr Nuno Andrade, of St. Anna Children’s Cancer Research Institute, Austria, who managed the project, said: “We wanted to develop a computerised approach that will allow us to simulate and to make predictions regarding immune responses that could be used to improve therapies against cancer or in-organ transplantations.”
In order to improve accuracy of the simulations, researchers conducted real-life experiments in the laboratory. Andrade said: “Biology is such a complex science. There is no way that we can keep doing science without computerised approaches.”
One approach to immunotherapy that is currently used to treat cancer is vaccine therapy. This involves taking a blood sample from a patient and mixing it with molecules found on the tumour called antigens. A substance known as an adjuvant is then added to help the immune cells in the blood sample respond to these antigens, and these activated immune cells are injected back into the patient’s body.
However, because this takes place in a lab, the process is time-consuming. The EU-funded PRECIOUS project is developing a novel nano-sized vaccine containing nanoparticles packed with both antigens and an adjuvant, which can be injected into the patient to stimulate the immune response inside the body.
The idea is to find an efficient process for creating these nanoparticles en masse so that nanovaccines can be manufactured on a large scale. The PRECIOUS team will test their nanoparticles for safety in humans.
Nano-sized particles are also being used to improve a kind of cancer therapy called photodynamic therapy (PDT). PDT involves a photoactive drug, called a photosensitiser, which, when introduced into the body, acts like a ticking bomb – it is safe until it is activated by contact with a particular wavelength of light and then it reacts with oxygen to form a chemical that kills the cells.
It’s not fully understood how or why, but PDT is also thought to activate the immune system to attack the cancer.