Smart Molecules Trigger White Blood Cells to Become Better Cancer-Eating Machines

Source: University of California, San Diego

Summary: Researchers engineered smart protein molecules that can re-engineer the immune cells and enable them to destroy cancer cells and fight infectious diseases.

White blood cells (WBC) play an important role in the immune system and their primary function is to remove foreign particles, pathogens and cancer cells by simply digesting them. Cancer cells use a self-defense signaling mechanism to escape from the WBC for their survival and spread in the body. A team of bioengineering researchers collaborated and engineered smart protein molecules which can reprogram the WBC to ignore the self-defense mechanism of cancer cells and destroy them. These smart protein molecules are termed as iSNAPS (integrated sensing and activating proteins), they detect precise molecular signals in live cells and try to act upon those signals to enable the cells to fight diseases. The work is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Engineered protein molecules

The big blue cells are macrophages and the green/yellow dots are Toledo tumor cells. Top panels: macrophages engineered with iSNAPS rapidly engulf and clear out cancer cells. Bottom panels: cancer cells get stuck on top of control macrophages. Credit: UC San Diego

The researchers successfully tested this process in live cell cultures. What they observed in their experiments is, engineered macrophages (a type of WBC) with iSNAPS are able to detect (sense) and destroy (activate) the rapidly dividing cancer cells by engulfing them. The other group of macrophages with disabled iSNAPS could only detect the cancer cells but cannot destroy them, indicating they have only sensing capability but no activating capability. Going forward, the team plans to test the iSNAPS in mice and check their performance in-vivo.

Professor Peter Yingxiao Wang said, “This study is the first to demonstrate how both sensing and activating capabilities can be combined into a single molecule. What’s noteworthy is that this response time is very fast—we believe it happens within seconds to minutes”. Researchers feel that advancement could lead to a new method of re-engineering immune cells to fight cancer and infectious diseases.

More Information: Jie sun et al, Engineered proteins with sensing and activating modules for automated reprogramming of cellular functions, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-00569-6

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