With nanotechnology we can understand, mimic, and modulate our immune system. For her Ph.D. research, Annelies Wauters studied how tiny nanocarriers can be used to control the immune system, and target and activate immune cells to fight cancer cells. Wauters defends her thesis on December 3rd.

The immune system helps to protect us from pathogens. However, sometimes the immune system also plays a role in progressing diseases. It is possible though to stop this through the use of medicines that boost or moderate the immune system. This type of treatment is known as immunotherapy.

Unfortunately, some immunotherapies are not always effective, and often lead to undesirable side effects such as skin rashes, pneumonia, and unusual auto-immune responses.

Nanocarriers

Nanocarriers, which are nanostructures designed to transport materials such as drugs in the body, can carry medicines to specific organs and cells in the immune system. Importantly, this type of nano-immunotherapy approach can be more effective and safer than regular immunotherapy as it targets only the cells of interest.

Recent studies have shown that the shape of nanocarriers plays a role in their interaction with the immune system. However, in-depth studies investigating this have not been carried out, partly due to the challenges in properly controlling the construction of these nanocarriers at the nanoscale.

Exploring nanocarrier shape and size

For her Ph.D. thesis, Annelies Wauters investigated how the size and shape of nanocarriers made from biodegradable polymers can influence interactions with the immune system, and how such nanocarriers can be applied in nano-immunotherapy.

To investigate the influence of the shape and size of nanocarriers, Wauters, who carried out the research in the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group which includes Jan van Hest and Loai Abdelmohsen, created a mini-library of nanocarriers to which she added special labels to help track the nanostructures in vivo.

“We discovered that the morphology of the nanocarrier was very important with regards to how the nanocarriers were distributed in tissue. Specifically, we were interested in looking at how the nanocarriers targeted immune organs and cells,” says Wauters.

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