Although neuroscientists have been using light to stimulate neurons for years, this is the first time the technique, called optogenetics, has been used in the immune system. And what they found will astonish you…
Doctors have found an exciting new non-evasive light therapy that can help the body’s own cells fight cancer! Supporting our own bodies in fighting disease, aka immunotherapy, is one of the most popular and growing areas of cancer research. Let’s face it, people are tired of chemotherapy and would prefer to avoid dangerous surgeries if they can help it. Now, with new therapies such and this new light technology we can boost the body without harming it.
Assistant professor Yubin Zhou, Ph.D. from the Center for Translational Cancer Research located at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences & Technology is actively studying how light can be used to control our body’s immune system and use it to fight cancer.
“Although neuroscientists have been using light to stimulate neurons for years, this is the first time the technique, called optogenetics, has been used in the immune system,” Zhou said.
Typically in neuroscience, the scientists will engineer cells that will produce microbes that are light-sensitive. When exposed to different frequencies of light these microbes will produce proteins that can tell our nerves to send or stop sending nerve impulses.
“Neuroscientists have learned a lot about brain circuits using the technique,” Zhou said, “and now researchers in many other fields are giving it a try.”
Optogenetics and the Immune System
Zhou and his team have found a way to modify the technique in order to help the immune system. The work wasn’t easy: unlike nerve cells, your immune system’s cells don’t use known electrical impulses to communicate. Another challenge is that our immune system cells are deep inside the body and are constantly moving around making it hard to hit with the right amount of light.
They had to use some out of the box thinking and team work to figure out.
“We collaborated with Dr. Gang Han at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who does bionanotechnology and photomedicine development,” Zhou said. “Together, we were able to combine state-of-the-art optogenetic approaches with cutting edge nanotechnology.”
The new nanotechnology known as optogenetic immunomodulation was recently published in an article ineLife.
“This work was driven by talented scientists in the lab: graduate students Lian He and Peng Tan and postdoctoral research fellow Guolin Ma, Ph.D.,” Zhou said, “who fearlessly undertook this daunting project and overcame all the challenging obstacles to make this technique into reality.”
Doctors can use Light to Direct Immune System Cells
With this new technique, the researchers were able to control immune system cells and ‘instruct’ them to kill cancerous tumor cells. Using a near-infrared laser beam that is able to penetrate a few centimeters into your body the scientists can use nanoparticles to turn blue and direct the engineered immune cells to fight specific cancer cells. Just imagine a general and his
“We are able to wirelessly control the action of immune cells buried deep in tissue,” Zhou said.
The researchers found a way to modify the immune cells so that their calcium gate-controlling protein was light sensitive. When they are exposed to blue light which is emitted by the nanoparticle they ‘open the ion gates’. Once the light is turned off the gates then close. Researchers can increase the flow of calcium into the cells by increase the flow of light.
They are still working on fine tuning the calcium-dependent actions of our immune cells so that they can better target tumor cells and invading pathogens that our body would otherwise not notice or be focused on fighting.
When animal tumor tests were conducted they were able to boost the immune system response which aided in the bodies ability to kill the cancer cells.
“The technique reduced tumor size and metastasis, so there are lots of applications,” Zhou said.
One of the biggest advantages of this method is that it only actives a specific type of immune system cell, the T-cell, and only in the area of the body where the light is being shined. When you get chemotherapy the immune system response is bodywide which can be a miserable process. With this non-invasive light tunable technique, they can focus the immune response only on and around the area of concern.
“Other scientists will likely use the technique to help them study immune, heart and other types of cells that use calcium to perform their tasks,” Zhou said. “It’s quite a cool technology. With these tools, we can now not only answer fundamental questions of science that we never could before but also translate it into the clinic for disease intervention.”
Zhou’s lab has been using this technique in order to see how effective specific cancers drugs will even have on people.
“If successful,” Zhou said, “all these efforts would remarkably improve the current cancer immunotherapies by personalizing the treatment to exactly where and when it is needed, while reducing side effects.”
What possible issues do you see with this new light therapy and the genetically modified immune cells? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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