Using a Polymer Implant to Program Your Immune System

Nature Materials has a fascinating paper on a kind of polymer implant that can ‘program’ your dendritic cells. This would allow doctors to use your own immune system to attack, for example, cancer cells. But it could also be used to combat other diseases related to the immune system (arthritis and diabetes are examples given by Technology Review), or even to “train other kinds of cells, including stem cells used to repair damage to the body.”

Here’s the abstract of the paper:

Cancer vaccines typically depend on cumbersome and expensive manipulation of cells in the laboratory, and subsequent cell transplantation leads to poor lymph-node homing and limited efficacy. We propose that materials mimicking key aspects of bacterial infection may instead be used to directly control immune-cell trafficking and activation in the body. It is demonstrated that polymers can be designed to first release a cytokine to recruit and house host dendritic cells, and subsequently present cancer antigens and danger signals to activate the resident dendritic cells and markedly enhance their homing to lymph nodes. Specific and protective anti-tumour immunity was generated with these materials, as 90% survival was achieved in animals that otherwise die from cancer within 25 days. These materials show promise as cancer vaccines, and more broadly suggest that polymers may be designed to program and control the trafficking of a variety of cell types in the body.

This immediately made me wonder if this technique could also be used to combat some of the diseases of aging that are caused by the accumulation of toxic by-products of metabolism that our immune system isn’t clearing up.

For example, maybe we could train our immune system to clear up the mis-folded protein aggregates (beta-amyloids) that accumulate in our brains throughout our lives and eventually, past a certain threshold, cause Alzheimer’s disease. A standard vaccine might do the trick, but maybe this technique could produce a more effective immune response?

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