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Redesign of immune cells to fight deadly diseases

 Restructuring immune cells could drastically change the fight against some of the most deadly diseases known to man. Researchers at Copenhagen Science City-partner, University of Copenhagen, plan to investigate optogenetics; a novel tool for changing the form and function of cells. Using light, they will deliberately change molecular patterns in cells and thus alter their behaviour altogether.

The human body is made up of billions of cells that someday might develop severe diseases such as cancer. In order to adapt, grow and reproduce, the cells consist of innumerable molecules that are organised in very precise patterns, which determine the function and survival of the cell.

The organisation of these patterns are the focus of a six-year research project at the Nano Science Center at the University of Copenhagen located in Copenhagen Science City. The project has just been granted DKK 60 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme. This once again highlights the position of Copenhagen as a global hotspot for cancer research with high investment potential.

Research with breakthrough potential

The research on using light to control cell patterns is still uncharted, but with the recent capital injection, hopes are high for a potential breakthrough:

“We are embarking on a new direction that will expand our understanding of cells and our ability to control their behaviour. It has the potential to become a breakthrough but at such an early stage, uncertainty is high. The actual potential and added value will become more concrete over the next six years through our intense research efforts”, says Professor Dimitrios Stamou, head of the research project.

Super immune cells in the making

The results of Dimitrios Stamou’s research can potentially be far-reaching in regards to the way the health sector will be able to treat diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, fertility diseases and cancer.

 ”By redesigning the molecular patterns in the cell, we can make the cell behave the way we want. One possibility may for instance be to develop super immune cells that will kill cancer cells more effectively before they become a tumor”, says Professor Dimitrios Stamou.

Light beams to control the cells

To redesign the patterns of molecules, the researchers at the Nano Science Center plan to apply special light beams to the cell to make the molecules place themselves in new patterns, hereby allowing the researchers to control the behaviour and function of the cell. This method is not widespread yet, but is very promising explains Dimitrios Stamous:

“Almost no one utilizes the fact that the organisation of the molecules in the cell can be changed on purpose in order to alter cell behaviour. The most common ways to make a cell do something specific is by either changing (mutating) the molecules in it, or adding new molecules (drugs) to it.”

It will take some time however before this method is ready to be tested on humans. According to Dimitrios Stamou, the development of the super immune cells has a time prospect of more than ten years before the method can be tested on patients.