Using copper to boost immunotherapy

An interdisciplinary group of scientists has successfully destroyed tumor cells in mice using nanoscale copper compounds in addition to immunotherapy. Above all, the tumors did not return after stopping treatment.

According to World Health Organization, Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world – in 2018, it was responsible for around 9.6 million deaths.

Reducing the behavioral or dietary risks associated with cancer is an important way to reduce the total number of cancer deaths; however, finding effective treatments is also crucial.

Doctors usually treat cancer with chemotherapy, but this often has significant side effects. For example, certain chemotherapy drugs can eliminate a person’s white blood cells, leaving their immune system compromised and open to infection.

Although chemotherapy treatment may be successful, there is always a risk that a person’s cancer will come back.

Recent advances in cancer treatment include immunotherapy, which involves using a person’s immune system to fight cancer cells. However, it does not always work or can only slow the growth of cancer, so it cannot replace chemotherapy yet.

Using copper to boost immunotherapy
Using copper to boost immunotherapy

In the new mouse study, the scientists combined immunotherapy with copper-based nanoparticles. This combined treatment destroyed the tumor cells without resorting to chemotherapy. Most importantly, the tumor cells did not return after stopping treatment.

The team of scientists – from KU Leuven in Belgium, the University of Bremen, the Leibniz Institute for Materials Engineering in Germany and the University of Ioannina in Greece – discovered that tumors in mice are sensitive to copper oxide nanoparticles.

Typically, these nanoparticles are toxic inside an organism. Scientists have discovered that by using iron oxide to create nanoparticles, they can control cells destroyed by nanoparticles, without affecting healthy cells. They recently published their findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Professor Stefaan Soenen and Dr Bella B. Manshian from the Department of Imaging and Pathology at KU Leuven worked together on the study. They explain how “any material you create at the nanoscale has slightly different characteristics than its normal size counterpart.” They continue:

If we ingest metal oxides in large quantities, they can be dangerous, but at the nanoscale and at controlled and safe concentrations, they can actually be beneficial. “

Scientists started by using only nanoparticles to target tumor cells. As expected, the cancer returned. However, the team discovered that nanoparticles could work in conjunction with the mouse’s immune system.

“We have noticed that copper compounds can not only kill tumor cells directly, but also help immune system cells that fight off foreign substances like tumors,” said Dr. Manshian.

When scientists combined the nanoparticles with immunotherapy, the tumor cells died and did not return.

To confirm the results, the scientists injected the mice with new tumor cells. The mice’s immune system immediately destroyed the new tumor cells.

Researchers believe that a combination of nanoparticles and immunotherapy could work as a vaccine against lung cancer and colon cancer, which were the two types of cancer studied by scientists.

However, they believe that this technique could treat up to 60% of cancers, including breast cancer and ovarian cancer, which develop from the same genetic mutation.

“As far as I know, this is the first time that metal oxides [have been used] to effectively fight cancer cells with lasting immune effects in living models, “says Professor Soenen. “In the next step, we want to create other metallic nanoparticles and identify which particles affect which types of cancer. This should lead to a complete database. ”

The results from animal tests do not necessarily work for humans, and to go further in the research, the team intends to test the treatment on human tumor cells. If successful, they will conduct a clinical trial.

However, according to Professor Soenen, there are still several obstacles to overcome:

Nanomedicine is on the rise in the United States and Asia, but Europe is lagging behind. It is a challenge to progress in this area because doctors and engineers often speak a different language. We need more interdisciplinary collaboration to better understand each other and take advantage of each other’s knowledge. “


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