Novel Treatment Offers Hope for Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers

Bioengineers from the University of California, San Diego have developed a nanosponge cloaked in white blood cells that can absorb inflammatory proteins, a new approach to treatment that may help patients better manage rheumatoid arthritis and ease their suffering.

by Kayt Sukel
October 01, 2018

Medications for rheumatoid arthritis, a disorder that causes progressive inflammation in the joints that leads to severe pain and immobility, can only treat the symptoms. They don’t attack the diseases at the molecular level. But that could be changing

Bioengineers from the University of California, San Diego have developed a nanosponge cloaked in white blood cells that can absorb inflammatory proteins, a new approach to treatment which may help patients better manage the disease, which afflicts about 1.5 million Americans, in the future. The results were published in the September 3, 2018 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

The work, recently published in Nature Nanotechnology, was led by Liangfang Zhang’s Nanomaterials and Nanomedicine Research Group at USCSD. The lab’s past work - designing nanoparticles coated with white blood cell membranes to prevent and treat bacterial infections and sepsis - proved an ideal technology to apply to this challenging medical condition, says Qiangzhe Zhang, a doctoral candidate working in the group.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is very complicated and involves a lot of inflammatory molecules—tens of thousands of molecules,” he says. “They include specific molecules called cytokines that start signaling other molecules and result in excess inflammation in the joint. 

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“Neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, are right in the middle of all that signaling,” he says “They are the immune system’s first responders. But in rheumatoid arthritis they are actually part of the problem, putting out a call for all these inflammatory proteins when they aren’t needed.”

The researchers thought they could disrupt this damaging inflammatory cascade by using the membranes of neutrophils as bait to attract inflammatory proteins. The teams separated neutrophils from fresh blood samples, removed their membranes, and mixed those membranes with ball-shaped nanoparticles to create what they call “cell membrane cloaked nanosponges.”

“These little pieces of the neutrophil membranes wrap around synthetic polymeric cores we can turn them into a Trojan horse, so to speak,” Qiangzhe Zhang says. “The inflammatory proteins will bind to the membrane and the nanosponge kind of soaks them up, stopping the release of certain types cytokines and managing what, in rheumatoid arthritis, can go on to be a really toxic process.”

The research group was able to reduce inflammation and cartilage damage in two different experiments using two distinct mice models of rheumatoid arthritis. They were also able prevent the development of the condition in one group of mice when the nanosponges were introduced prior to inducing disease.

Still, this is not yet sufficient as a treatment because the nanosponges can’t target all of the inflammatory molecules that play a role in the disease’s progression..

“We are looking to expand the nanoparticle’s properties to be able to capture other inflammatory messengers in this network,” Zhang says. “One day, it could be a local injection that is shot into a joint to help prevent and treat this condition without being too immunodepressive—turning down the body’s entire immune system in the process of trying to manage one inflammatory response.”

While these results are preliminary, they are promising and offer hope of a new therapeutic approach for a condition that leaves much to be desired in terms of effective treatments today,” Liangfang Zhang says.

“The neutrophil nanosponge is different from the traditional small molecule drugs or antibody based biologics that are used today to treat inflammatory arthritis,” Zhang said. “It’s a different way to think about treatment. These neutrophil nanosponges offer the promise of a broad spectrum anti-inflammatory strategy against this disease that blocks pathological molecules from causing disease in the body.” 

Kayt Sukel is an independent technology writer.

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