Cancer Treatment

The "Opto-CRAC" team: Lian He, Peng Tan and Dr. Guolin Ma from Yubin Zhou's lab. 

Texas A&M researchers have come up with a new treatment for cancer patients. The technique uses light to “train” special immune cells to attack a cancerous tumor.

The technique was developed by Yubin Zhou, a researcher at the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology. The technique combines several fields of cutting-edge science, including nanoparticles and cellular engineering. Zhou said his research team has had great success in lab trials and believes their technology is ready for human use, if the FDA approves their unique nanoparticle approach.

“This is groundbreaking research, because we have been able to harness the power of light to control the activity of immune cells, so that we can instruct the immune cells to attack tumor cells,” Zhou said.

This new approach to treatment is called immunotherapy and is quickly gaining momentum, said Tan Peng, a researcher on the project.

“Cancer immunotherapy has become the hottest and most promising therapy to cure cancer patients due to accuracy in killing tumor cells without affecting normal tissues,” Peng said. “It also has a long lasting therapeutic effect compared to conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

The treatment is simply administered using a specialized flashlight tool. The science primarily revolves around T cells, a type of white blood cell that searches for abnormalities in the body, in order to kill infected or cancerous cells.

Zhou’s lab enlisted the help of Yun Huang, another A&M researcher who specializes in T cells.

“In my lab we are studying lymphoma and how the DNA modifications control the gene expression and affect the lymphoma and the leukemia,” Huang said. “Because I work a lot with T cells, I contributed some of that work and gave some guidance and suggestions to the project.”

Essentially, the T cells rely on dendritic cells, a cell that presents antigens to T cells, to be activated to increase calcium content. As more dendritic cells become active, the body’s immune response increases and is better positioned to destroy cancerous cells, Peng said.

“To do this, we tried to engineer the light sensitivity into a calcium activating component,” Zhou said.

This was accomplished by fusing a light-sensitive protein called “LOV” to another protein called “STIM1,” said Peng.

“In the presence of blue light, this fusion protein, LOV-STIM1, can open the calcium channel and activate the calcium signaling in dendritic cells,” Peng said. “Once the calcium signaling is activated, dendritic cells can help T cells to efficiently recognize the tumor cells for tumor killing.”

Despite this breakthrough, there was another obstacle to overcome. Blue light, the light required for this immunotherapy, cannot penetrate the human body, and a different approach had to be taken.

Peng said the research team began using near-infrared, or NIR, light which can penetrate deep into tissue and patient’s body in conjunction with a nanoparticle called “UCNP.” This particle has the ability to convert NIR light into blue light inside the body.

“In order to activate the calcium signaling inside the body, we attached UCNP to the LOV-STIM1 cells and injected them into tumor-bearing mice,” Peng said. “We turn on the NIR light and the UCNP converts the NIR into blue light and it activates the calcium signaling in dendritic cells buried deep in the body.”

Once this is completed, dendritic cells are activated and meet T cells in the body, helping T cells to kill tumors more efficiently, said Peng.

According to Zhou, the project has seen great success in animal trials so far.

“We have tested into mouse models with melanoma, or skin cancer,” Zhou said. “Once we subjected the mouse to the NIR light, we will found that the tumor growth will be substantially suppressed and there is less metastasis of melanoma cancer cells.”

The bottleneck for the method being used clinically lies mainly with how the FDA will approve nanoparticle-based therapy. Nanoparticle treatments are relatively new, so additional work needs to be done to ensure their safety, said Zhou.

“If that is lifted, then this can immediately be applied to the clinic,” Zhou said.

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