A trojan horse to trick the immune system

Our immune system has evolved distinct responses to foreign invaders that have come and gone over the course of human evolution. That makes controlling the response based on today’s threats especially complex and unpredictable. To bring order to the challenge, Dr. Evan Scott is developing synthetic biomaterials disguised as pathogens that can deliver precision-guided drugs anywhere in the body. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research…

The overall research objective of my laboratory is to employ engineering- and materials-based strategies to realize controlled therapeutic modulation of the immune system.  The immune system has a role in almost every known pathology and is our greatest defense against infectious disease and cancer.

The overall research objective of my laboratory is to employ engineering- and materials-based strategies to realize controlled therapeutic modulation of the immune system. 

Unfortunately, the complexity of the interconnected tissues, cells, and signaling molecules that contribute to an immune response has hindered our ability to rationally direct its function.  To achieve such rationally designed immunomodulation, we have developed novel targeted self-assembled nanomaterials, injectable sustained release biomaterials, and improved strategies for vaccination based upon synthetic biomimicry of pathogens.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

We develop strategies to treat diseases using a patient’s own immune system, a.k.a immunotherapy.  The immune system is very complex but has evolved to generate distinct responses when confronted with certain types of pathogens.  As immunoengineers, we can design and fabricate synthetic materials that mimic these pathogens to generate similar responses, but in a safe and controlled fashion. 

As immunoengineers, we can design and fabricate synthetic materials that mimic these pathogens to generate similar responses, but in a safe and controlled fashion.

Our materials are composed of nontoxic polymers that safely degrade within the body. These materials are nanoscale (about one billionth of a meter in diameter) to match the sizes of viruses and can transport a wide range of drugs to specific locations within the body.  

How could it someday impact patient lives?

Since our immune system is our first line of defense against infection and cancer, being able to therapeutically control immune responses is highly advantageous.  In fact, almost every disease involves inflammation and the immune response in some way. Our nanomaterials can therefore be customized to treat a wide range of disease, and we are currently exploring strategies for heart disease, tuberculosis, cancer, glaucoma, Chagas disease, diabetes, neonatal vaccination, and transplant tolerance.  Furthermore, by more efficiently delivering drugs, our nanomaterials can significantly decrease toxicity, side effects, and effective dosages, or even completely change the mechanism of action for many therapeutic molecules.

By more efficiently delivering drugs, our nanomaterials can significantly decrease toxicity, side effects, and effective dosages, or even completely change the mechanism of action for many therapeutic molecules.