A New Study Shows That Light Can Help Fight Cancer
Written by: Justin Cowart
Immunotherapy is a new and upcoming topic of research in the field of cancer. You might be wondering what immunotherapy really is. Well, think of using the body’s own cells to fight off cancer, which has the grand potential to be more effective and even less invasive than the normal method of flooding the your entire system with toxic chemicals.
Assistant professor from the Center for Translational Cancer Research, Yubin Zhou, Ph.D., is now studying how to utilize light to help control the immune system and even induce it to fight off cancer.
Zhou says that,
“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. Neuroscientists have learned a lot about brain circuits using the technique and now researchers in many other fields are giving it a try.”
Generally in neuroscience, the process tends to involve genetically engineering different cells to produce proteins from light-sensitive microbes, which results in nerve cells that will either stop sending or send nerve impulses when they are exposed to particular colors of light.
Zhou, with the help of his team, has been able to modify this technique for our immune systems. It wasn’t an easy task; unlike nerve cells, immune cells don’t utilize tiny electrical impulses to communicate. In addition, immune cells are located deep within your body and are constantly moving all around, so being able to get light to them can be quite difficult.
“We are able to wirelessly control the action of immune cells buried deep in tissue,” Zhou said.
This new development took an immense amount of cooperation and ingenuity. Zhou’s’ work, which was called optogenetic immunomodulation, was also featured in a recent publication article in eLife. Zhou said that,
“We collaborated with Dr. Gang Han at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who does bionanotechnology and photomedicine development. Together, we were able to combine state-of-the-art optogenetic approaches with cutting edge nanotechnology.”
Utilizing this method, the researchers are able to control the actions of immune cells and even “instruct” them to seek out and kill cancerous tumor cells. This procedure calls for the use of a near-infrared laser beam, which is used to penetrate deep into the tissue, where a certain nanoparticle turns the near-infrared light into blue light that then directs the activities of genetically engineered immune cells.
“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., who fearlessly undertook this daunting project and overcame all the challenging obstacles to make this technique into reality.”
The research team was able to genetically engineer immune cells so that a calcium gate-controlling protein became sensitive to light. Then when they are exposed to the blue light that is emitted by the nanoparticle, their calcium ion gates open up. When this light is turned off, the gates then close. More light will lead to a greater flow of calcium.
With this amazing data, the researchers were able to fine-tune the calcium-dependent actions of immune cells to then fight against tumor cells or invading pathogens.
During the research, an animal tumor model was injected with both the light-sensitive genetically engineered immune cells and the nanoparticle. The laser beam then caused the calcium channels to open up, which in turn boosted an immune response to aid the body in being able to kill off cancer cells.
Zhuo stated that,
“The technique reduced tumor size and metastasis, so there are lots of applications.”
One of the advantages of this type of method is that it only activates a certain type of immune cell – the T-cell or dendritic cell – and only in one specific part of the body, near the tumor or lymph nodes, which can help to pull back on the system-wide side effects that are often seen when utilizing chemotherapy.
This type of technique is not only non-invasive, but also light-tunable and has superb temporal resolution; in other words, it can be turned on and off just like a light switch in your home.
I know this is a lot of information to take in and some of it can be quite technical, yet the implications of this type of research are as far-reaching as the stars in our universe.
“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. 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 is currently applying this new technique to help establish a new way to screen potential cancer drugs even more effectively.
“If successful, 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.”
I believe that with this brand new research in the field of cancer treatment, we as a society may finally be able to conquer one of the worst diseases in our world. Yet this is only a stepping stone for huge breakthroughs in the medical field.
The results of this research may have the potential to completely revamp the world of medicine, so that people who are inflicted with a disease can just use the power of light to heal their bodies.
We would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this topic in the comments below!
Justin Cowart is a writer and researcher that loves to learn more about health, life, consciousness and making the world a better place. He loves music, traveling, meditation, video games and spending time with family and friends. He believes in baby steps and lifestyle changes in order to live a full life. In 2014, he lost around 40lbs from baby steps and emotional detoxing.
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