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Dr. Matthias Stephan developed the nanoparticle immunotherapy tech at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Fred Hutch Photo)

Dr. Matthias Stephan has a vision: cancer-killing immunotherapy that is so cheap and easy to access it replaces chemotherapy as the front-line treatment for cancer.

“What I envision is like the Walgreens flu shot scenario, or you go to your doctor and you get hepatitis B shot,” he said. “You go there every Friday, and that’s it.”

Stephan is a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and a new study published Monday reveals the nanoparticle immunotherapy technology that he has developed, which could make his vision a reality.

Stephan isn’t saying the tech will be a cure-all — at the moment, even the most successful immunotherapies don’t work in every patient. But the tech could be a game-changer by making emerging therapies much more cost-efficient and easy to access, and could even be used to develop novel treatments for infectious diseases like HIV.

CAR T immunotherapies, while promising treatments for cancer, have several giant pitfalls. They take weeks of complex scientific work to make, must be personalized for each patient and are incredibly expensive, meaning many patients won’t be able to access them.

“We realized in order to outcompete chemotherapy, we have to design something that is at least as affordable and can be manufactured at large scale by one biotech company and shipped out to local infusion centers,” Stephan said. “And then, once you’re diagnosed with cancer, you get it on the day of diagnosis.”  

Juno Therapeutics lab
Inside Juno Therapeutics’ lab, employees work with a patient’s genetically engineered T-cells and prepare them for infusion. (Juno Therapeutics Photo)

CAR T immunotherapies work by genetically altering T cells, which are like the Navy Seals of the immune system. These cells find and destroy viruses and other microscopic invaders, but they generally can’t recognize cancer cells.

Traditionally, these therapies are made by removing T cells from a patient and genetically altering them so they grow chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), like night-vision goggles that help the cells detect cancer. The patient’s normal T cells are killed off with radiation and the CAR T cells are then infused back into the patient.

Stephan’s system involves much less work.

He and his team have developed tiny, biodegradable nanoparticles that act like small vehicles for genetic material. They can be injected into a patient like a normal vaccine. They then make their way into a T cell and transfer the genetic material they carry, turning the T cell into a cancer-fighting CAR T cell.

The nanoparticles don’t take specialized equipment to deliver and aren’t personalized for each patient, so they can be made in large batches and shipped to clinics and hospitals all across the country at very low cost.

Stephan also said patients could receive it immediately, meaning the CAR T cells could go to work within just two days of a patient being diagnosed. Current CAR T cell treatments take weeks to start working, and because patients often need to travel to specialized clinics, the time from diagnosis to receiving treatment could take months.

While this early study was done in mice and not humans, it has proved that the tech works and means Stephan and his team can work toward testing it in humans and eventually conducting clinical trials.

The study also only looked at the nanoparticle’s ability to target leukemia, and not on the more common solid tumors. But Stephan and his team are also working on ways to combine the nanoparticles with other immunotherapy techniques to so they can also target solid tumors.

Stephan said the tech could also be used to combat other diseases, possibly even as vaccines for HIV or malaria.

Some people are naturally resistant to HIV because of a particular receptor on their T cells. Scientists have long known about this receptor, but have had no way to make it appear in people who don’t produce it naturally.

Stephan said that, theoretically, the nanoparticles could be used to genetically alter T cells to grow this HIV-resistant element, acting as a vaccine against the disease. If Stephan and his team are able to make the tech work safely and effectively in humans, it could be the breakthrough the immunotherapy field has been waiting for.

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