Israeli scientists develop breakthrough nanochip aimed at propelling cancer immunotherapy treatment forward
‘This understanding is of far-reaching significance in developing immunotherapy treatments against cancer,’ says Ben-Gurion University Dean of Medicine Prof. Angel Porgador
By ILANIT CHERNICK
In what could be a major breakthrough, scientists at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev have developed a nanochip that is able to monitor how new immunotherapies react to and affect cancer.
According to BGU’s Prof. Mark Schvartzman, who led the research and development, the nanochip, has two innovative and main aspects: One from a nanotechnology perspective and the other from a biological perspective. He added that it took years to develop.
Schvartzman of BGU’s Department of Materials Engineering and the Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology explained that the surface of the silicon nanochip mimics an artificial cancer cell.
It can attach to a special sickness-fighting white blood cell called Lymphocytes, which are equipped with receptors that know how to connect to molecules of sick or suspicious cells, known as ligands, once detected.
Lymphocytes, the scientists said, “glide through the blood in the body and know how to differentiate between healthy cells and sick cells, which could turn cancerous.”
“If the cell is identified as sick – infected by a virus or cancerous – ‘the patrol’ breaks them up and destroys them,” If the cell signals that it is healthy, the white blood cells continue as usual.
With the nano-chip mimicking cancer cells, it can attach to the receptors “and control their organization,” they explained.
Dean of BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and research co-author, Prof. Angel Porgador, pointed out that through the nano-chip research and development, they managed “to understand how the size and physical arrangement of the receptors on the cell affect how the white blood cells ‘talk to’ the other cells in the body.”
“This understanding is of far-reaching significance in developing immunotherapy treatments against cancer,” he said. “Today, cell activities within the body can be directed to fight cancer by genetically engineering receptors. This innovative approach is at the forefront of cancer treatments and has been proven effective for certain types of blood cancers, but there is a need to develop other methods that are effective against different types of cancer.”
He stressed that this “development requires a deep understanding of how the immune system operates. Today, that understanding comes about through new nanotechnology tools.”
Addressing how nanotechnology has influenced different fields including medicine, Schvartzman pointed out that “the field of nanotechnology took off about 20 years ago, primarily stemming from a need to reduce the size of components on computer processing chips.”
However, today, this “field offers unique tools that serve scientists from many different fields.”
“These tools allow us to create, view and control objects just 10 nanometers or less in size,” Schvartzman said. “That is the size-scale of a single biomolecule in the body.”
Through this nanochip’s development, Schvartzman and his team have been able to achieve “unprecedented control by setting up a molecule as a single cell and we even managed to ‘suppress’ or ‘activate’ important processes in the cell for the first time.”
Through their intense research, the team was able to confirm that the Lymphocytes did in fact interact with the chip “as if it were a cancerous cell and attempted to destroy it.”
“We discovered that the distance between receptors had a dramatic effect on the lymphocytes’ response,”’ said Schvartzma, explaining that “the farther away the receptors for attack and suppression were, the greater the suppression.”
For the researchers, this finding was a huge surprise because it contradicts the prevailing understanding of the scientific community, that proximity is required to suppress an attack.
“The cell membrane has limited flexibility and therefore when the receptors are in proximity, the lymphocyte cannot attach to both receptors,” they added.
Concluding, Schvartzman said that this study has “important ramifications” for the future of both the medicine and biology fields.
The research was carried out by doctoral student Esti Toledo and post-doc student Dr. Guillaume Le Saux with the assistance of research groups from Germany and France.
The findings were published Friday in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.