'Waltzing' Nanoparticles Target Medication Delivery

By making nanoparticles ‘dance,’ researchers have found they can strengthen their connection to cells and thus improve immunotherapy.

Researchers constantly explore the pairing of technology and biology for next-generation medical applications. Some of the latest research in this field comes out of Indiana University (IU), where researchers have discovered that drug-delivering nanoparticles can be made to “dance” so as to attach to targets within the body differently for more effective treatments.

A team from the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry has been exploring how the movement of therapeutic particles, when they bind to human cell receptors, can indicate the effectiveness of drug treatments. What they’ve found is that some nanoparticles attach to these receptors based upon their position when they meet, like ballroom dancers who change moves with the music, they said in an IU news release.

waltzing particles
Pictured is a "dance pair" of nanoparticles dyed red and green to reveal molecular binding under a fluorescence microscope. A team at Indiana University engaged in the research as part of its exploration of the effectiveness of drug-delivering nanoparticles. (Image source: Yan Yu, Indiana University)

Better Effectiveness of Drugs

The work could have a significant effect on the evolution and success of immunotherapy, which uses the body’s own immune system to fight diseases like cancer and depends partially on the ability to control how strongly it bonds to cells, said the study’s leader, Yan Yu, an assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Chemistry.

"In many cases, a drug's effectiveness isn't based upon whether or not it binds to a targeted receptor on a cell, but how strongly it binds," she said. "The better we can observe these processes, the better we can screen for the therapeutic effectiveness of a drug."

Previously, the common theory among researchers was that particles slowed down and became trapped during the process of binding to a cell receptor. However, Yu said the team saw “something new.” "We saw the particles rotated differently based upon when they became trapped in binding to their receptors,” she said. In other words, the particles were acting as single dancers in the metaphorical waltz of molecular motion—something they identified as a further option for experimentation and study.

Creating Dance Partners

To do this, Yu's team created dance partners—or two nanoparticles, one dyed green, the other red—that paired together to form a single imaging marker that could be viewed under a fluorescence microscope. Researchers then camouflaged the marker, or nanoprobe, with a cell membrane coating taken from a T lymphocyte—a type of white blood cell found in the body's immune system.

Using the two colors, the researchers could simultaneously observe two unique movements of the particle before cell attachment—a "rotational motion,” which has it circling in place, and "translational motion,” in which it moves across physical space.

"We found that the particles began with random rotation, moved to rocking motion, then a circling motion, and finally a confined circling motion," Yu said. "The observation of this wide range of rotational motion—and the transition from one form to the next at different points in time—is completely new."

Researchers also found that they could start connecting different motions of the particles to different bond strengths, and observed these interactions, she said. They plan to continue their work to create more effective cell bonds for immunotherapy, Yu noted. The next phase will be to monitor the "waltzing" of camouflaged T lymphocytes to understand their targeted-binding to tumor cells. The team published a paper on the work in the journal ACS Nano.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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