Cancer cells divide relentlessly, forming solid tumors or flooding the blood with abnormal cells. These cells come from our own body and hence, is one of the reasons as to why it is very difficult to treat cancer. The immune system finds it difficult to differentiate them from healthy cells. Sidi Bencherif, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Northeastern University believes that it is possible for us to teach our immune system to attack cancer cells. However, immune cells need a steady supply of oxygen to do their job.
Bencherif says “When immune cells come to the site to try to kill the tumor cells, they just can’t. They are inhibited, because they are not used to being in such immunosuppressive hypoxic environment.” Hypoxic areas are those with low oxygen. Bencherif has designed a porous, gel-like material that produces oxygen in order to study how hypoxic environments alter the various functions of immune cells and ways to reverse it. It was originally designed as a part of a cancer vaccine, where microenvironments would be loaded with cancer cells and biomolecules which would then be injected under the skin to act as training camps for immune cells. The porous gels would attract and activate dendritic cells, expose them to cancer cells and then send them back to the lymph nodes to share about their targets with T-cells.
“Even if you are recruiting immune cells and trying to educate them, if you have a hypoxic environment, you’re not going to trigger a strong immune response. You have to overcome hypoxia first” Bencherif commented. Now Bencherif has incorporated small particles that react with water into the matrix of the gels, which produces a steady supply of oxygen. He says “This is basic science. I’m trying to understand how these immune cells are affected by the tumor microenvironment and, if they are inhibited, how can we reverse. Down the road, this research may help us to make a better vaccine and potentially save millions of lives”.
Shahjadi Jemim Rahman