Guizhi Zhu, from the NIBIB Laboratory of Molecular Imaging and Nanomedicine (LOMIN) and his colleagues have created what they call a "self-assembling, intertwining DNA-RNA nanocapsule loaded with tumor neoantigens." They describe it as a synergistic vaccine because the components work together to stimulate and enhance an immune attack against a tumor.The study was published in the Nature Communications.

The DNA component of the vaccine is known to stimulate immune cells to work with partner immune cells for antitumor activation. The tumor neoantigens are pieces of proteins that are only present in the tumor; so, when the DNA attracts the immune cells, the immune cells interact with the tumor neoantigens and mount an expanded and specific immune response against the tumor.

The RNA is the component that inhibits suppression of the immune system. The engineered RNA binds to and degrades the tumor's mRNA that makes a protein called STAT3. Thus, the bound mRNA is blocked from making STAT3, which may suppress the immune system. The result is an enhanced immune response that is specific to the tumor and does not harm healthy tissues.

In addition to engineering a system where the DNA, RNA and tumor neoantigens self-assemble into a stable nanoparticle, an important final step in the process is shrinking the particle. The method for shrinking also had to be engineered. This was achieved by coating the particle with a positively charged polypeptide that interacts with the negatively charged DNA and RNA components to condense it to one-tenth of its original size.

Testing the nanovaccine

To create a model of metastatic colon cancer, the researchers injected human colon cancer cells into the circulation of mice. The cells infiltrate different organs and grow as metastatic colon cancer. One of the prime sites of metastasis is the lung.

The nanovaccine was injected under the skin of the mice 10, 16, and 22 days after the colon cancer cells were injected. To compare to the nanovaccine, two control groups of mice were analyzed; one group was injected with just the DNA and the neoantigen in solution but not formed into a nanovaccine particle, and the second control group was injected with an inert buffer solution.

At 40 days into the experiment, lung tumors from the nanovaccine-treated and the control groups were assessed by PET-CT imaging, and then removed and weighed. In mice treated with the nanovaccine, tumors were consistently one tenth the size of the tumors that were found in mice in both control groups.

Further testing revealed that mice receiving the nanovaccine had a significant increase in circulating cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) that specifically targeted the neoantigen on the colon cancer cells. CTLs are cells that attack and kill virus-infected cells and those damaged in other ways, such as cancerous cells.

An important aspect of the nanovaccine approach is that it mounts an anti-tumor immune response that circulates through the system, and therefore is particularly valuable for finding and inhibiting metastatic tumors growing throughout the body. The researchers view their nanovaccine as an important part of eventual therapies combining immunotherapy with other cancer killing approaches.