Self-assembling 3D vaccines may help fight cancer


A microscope image shows many of the immune system's dendritic cells that were collected from a 3D scaffold three days after in vivo injection. The 3D scaffold effectively recruits and activates the dendritic cells to trigger an immune response against specific cells, such as cancerous cells. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

ONE DAY, TREATING cancer may be as simple as administering an injection. Researchers at Harvard University have created injectable vaccines that spontaneously assemble into 3D structures that could fight cancer as well as serious infectious diseases such as HIV.


Mesoporous silica rods (MSRs) spontaneously assemble to form a porous 3D scaffold, as seen in this SEM image. The 3D scaffold has many nooks and crannies and is large enough to house tens of millions of recruited immune cells.
Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The vaccines are made from tiny rod-like structures, known as mesoporous silica rods (MSRs). The pores within these little rods can be loaded with a variety of different drugs and the whole structure is then injected into patients with a needle. Once inside the body, the rods spontaneously form a 3D scaffold. This then attracts the body’s dendritic cells, which direct the immune system to attack specific areas, such as cancerous cells. So far, the researchers have successfully tested the technology in mice.

“Right now we are focusing on developing a cancer vaccine. But in the future we may be able to manipulate the type of dendritic cells or other immune cells recruited to the 3D scaffold by using different kinds of drugs released from the rods,” explains study co-author Aileen Li. “By tuning the surface properties and pore size of the MSRs, and therefore controlling the introduction and release of various proteins and drugs, we can manipulate the immune system to treat multiple diseases.”

Since the vaccines can be produced quickly and easily, they might be used to fight rapidly emerging infectious diseases. Alternatively, they could be employed preventatively by building the body’s immune resistance prior to infection.

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