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Using nanotechnology to build backpacks for cells

A patch consisting of three layers of polymers can be loaded with nanoparticles and attached to living cells to give them nanotech backpacks that could be useful for carrying chemotherapy and imaging agents to tumors, or to align cells in certain patterns for tissue engineering. From “Scientists create tiny backpacks for cells” written by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office (found via PhysOrg.com/a>):

MIT engineers have outfitted cells with tiny “backpacks” that could allow them to deliver chemotherapy agents, diagnose tumors or become building blocks for tissue engineering.

Michael Rubner, director of MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering and senior author of a paper on the work that appeared online in Nano Letters [abstract], said he believes this is the first time anyone has attached such a synthetic patch to a cell.

The polymer backpacks allow researchers to use cells to ferry tiny cargoes and manipulate their movements using magnetic fields. Since each patch covers only a small portion of the cell surface, it does not interfere with the cell’s normal functions or prevent it from interacting with the external environment.

“The goal is to perturb the cell as little as possible,” said Robert Cohen, the St. Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and an author of the paper.

The researchers worked with B and T cells, two types of immune cells that can home to various tissues in the body, including tumors, infection sites, and lymphoid tissues — a trait that could be exploited to achieve targeted drug or vaccine delivery.

“The idea is that we use cells as vectors to carry materials to tumors, infection sites or other tissue sites,” said Darrell Irvine, an author of the paper and associate professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering.

Cellular backpacks carrying chemotherapy agents could target tumor cells, while cells equipped with patches carrying imaging agents could help identify tumors by binding to protein markers expressed by cancer cells.

Another possible application is in tissue engineering. Patches could be designed that allow researchers to align cells in a certain pattern, eliminating the need for a tissue scaffold.

—Jim

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