In Brief
  • Researchers successfully boost the immune systems in mice to fight cancerous tumors using ferumoxytol.
  • The method could one day be used to treat cancer in humans, which is currently responsible for nearly 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S.

A novel way to fight cancer

Though medicine has come an incredibly long way, prolonging life and treating a plethora of diseases, one medical condition still continues to leave experts stymied: cancer.

Cancer is a category of diseases marked by cell growth that is out of control. It injures the body when affected cells continuously divide. This leads either to interference with normal cell genesis or the formation of abnormal tissue lumps called tumors, which can disrupt bodily functions by releasing hormones where they shouldn’t be.

In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and Oregon Health & Science University have developed a new way to combat the Big C using ferumoxytol, an injectable supplement of iron nanoparticles typically used to treat anemia.

Under normal circumstances, the macrophages (a class of white blood cells) in healthy people will use a process called phagocytosis to devour individual tumor cells, but that same class of white blood cells will stop eating and instead start to actually foster growth for a tumor if it reaches a particular size. In a study with mice, scientists found that introducing a dose of ferumoxytol stimulated macrophages, reverting them back to attack-mode.

Amy Thomas/Stanford University School of Medicine
Amy Thomas/Stanford University School of Medicine

Next Step (Hopefully): Human Trials

According to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., accounting for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths. Though the ferumoxytol tests have only yielded results for mice, the researchers think the method could have important implications for cancer treatment in humans.

“We think this concept should hold in human patients, too,” remarked Heike Daldrup-Link, the study’s senior author and associate professor of radiology at Stanford. He’s also hopeful that the method could proceed to human trials without much difficulty, saying, “The fact that the nanoparticles are already FDA-approved speeds the ability to test these applications in humans.”

The boosting effect of ferumoxytol on the immune system, combined with the absence of the toxic effects of chemotherapy, may be utilized to control tumor growth in a localized area and even mitigate patients’ surgery recovery, making the aftermath of cancer treatment more tolerable for the millions of people affected by the disease.