Advanced nanoparticles provide new weapon to fight difficult cancers

Nanoparticles, or tiny molecules that can deliver a payload of drug treatments and other agents, show great promise for treating cancers. Scientists can build them in various shapes with different materials, often as porous, crystal-like structures formed by a lattice of metal and organic compounds, or as capsules that enclose their contents inside a shell. When injected into a tumor, these particles can release treatments that attack cancer cells directly or complement other treatments like immunotherapy and radiation.

In a collaborative effort by cancer specialists and chemists, researchers at the University of Chicago have formulated an advanced type of nanoparticle that carries a compound derived from bacteria to target a potent immune system pathway called STING. The particles disrupt the tumor’s blood vessel structure and stimulate an immune response. This approach also helps overcome resistance to immunotherapy treatments in certain pancreatic tumors and boosts response to radiation therapy in glioma as well.

“This was an unusual collaboration between medicine and inorganic chemistry to solve this unmet need of treating tumors that are intractable to conventional therapy,” said Ralph Weichselbaum, MD, the Daniel K. Ludwig Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of Radiation and Cellular Oncology at UChicago. “We were able to deliver an immune stimulant that has anti-tumor activity on its own, and enabled radiation and immunotherapy to cure these tumors.”

The study, “Zinc cyclic di-AMP nanoparticles target and suppress tumours via endothelial STING activation and tumour-associated macrophage reinvigoration,” was published in Nature Nanotechnology on October 26, 2022.

Cold, hot, and hotter tumors

As always with cancer, some tumors prove resistant to even the most high-tech of treatments. Immunotherapy unleashes the body’s immune system to find and destroy cancer cells, but the tumors must be “hot” or inflamed for these treatments to be effective. So called “cold” tumors that aren’t inflamed can hide from the immune system but continue to grow and metastasize.

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