How nanotechnology can flick the immunity switch

Bianca Nogrady in Nature:

Ever since 1796, when English scientist and physician Edward Jenner successfully inoculated an eight-year-old boy with cowpox to protect him from smallpox, vaccines have been a key tool for preventing disease. From smallpox to polio, diphtheria to COVID-19, vaccines have prevented more deaths from infectious disease than any other medical treatment.

But the concept of vaccinating against disease is evolving beyond the original goal of training the immune system to be ready to fight off infectious pathogens. Nanotechnology is helping to reinvent vaccines, and use them to target cancer, as well as a host of autoimmune conditions including multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and even food allergies.

Ten years ago, Jeffrey Hubbell, a chemical engineer, was working with nanomaterials for cancer-drug delivery when he saw that these materials tended to get filtered into the lymph nodes, which contain immune cells. “We thought if these can drain to lymph nodes, we should be able to engineer them to be immunologically active to control what goes on in [the nodes],” says Hubbell, from the Pritzker School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Chicago.

That started a shift from nanomaterials for drug delivery to nanomaterials for immune drug delivery, or nano immuno-engineering. The idea is that the nanomaterial itself is immunologically active. Rather than using a biologically inert nanoscale structure engineered to deliver a drug to a particular target in the body, the nanomaterial is biologically active and engineered to trigger an immune response to the payload it carries.

More here.