Immunotherapy drug now works with a millionth of a dose — thanks to Israeli tech

Medicine fell foul of regulators despite helping patients, as it required large dose. Now, Technion’s pinpoint delivery system cuts quantity needed, allowing revival of drug

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A melanoma cell, like the ones that have been treated using technology developed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Dr_Microbe via iStock by Getty Images)
A melanoma cell, like the ones that have been treated using technology developed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Dr_Microbe via iStock by Getty Images)

Israeli scientists have made an immunotherapy drug effective with just a millionth of its original dose.

The research team from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology notched up the achievement with a drug delivery technology that uses adult stem cells to transport medicine directly to the tumor site.

“This indicates that our technology could radically change the way we deliver some immunotherapy drugs to the site of tumors,” Prof. Marcelle Machluf told The Times of Israel.

Machluf and her PhD student Lior Levy just published their peer-reviewed research in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

It relates to an immunotherapy drug called TRAIL, which showed good efficacy in clinical trials, but fell at the the final regulatory hurdle because the dose needed was too large, raising concerns about potential side effects. The research was independent, and not funded by any pharmaceutical company.

A few years ago Machluf invented a technology to insert cancer drugs into the membrane of special cells, derived from mesenchymal stem cells — which are found in all humans — that deliver the drugs with great accuracy to tumors. They are hypo-immunologic, meaning they don’t provoke an immune system reaction when transferred from one person to another.

Prof. Marcelle Machluf at her lab in the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (Courtesy)

The pinpointed delivery reduces the amount of medicine needed, cuts exposure of the body to the drug apart from at the tumor site, and in turn lessens side effects, Machluf said.

Her team assessed the system’s effectiveness with TRAIL via in vivo studies in mice that had melanomas. The system was injected into the blood, accumulated in the tumors, and effected a reduction in their size, while it was not detected elsewhere in the body.

Machluf, dean of the Technion’s Faculty of Biotechnology and adviser to the NanoGhost startup, which is commercializing the technology, said the study was the strongest proof of concept yet for her invention.

“This delivers the drug to the tumor and enables a significant reduction in drug dosage yet still does the job, and also showed that our method does not harm healthy cells,” said Machluf.

“We have a totally different way to deliver a drug to cancer cells in a more targeted way, and this research indicates that we can actually use it to bring an excellent drug back to the market,” she said.

“As well as this, there’s potential to give this efficiency improvement to other immunotherapies.”

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