Jonathan F. Lovell, PhD, has led research — published in Nature Chemistry — that proves proteins can easily be attached to nanoparticles.

New Biotech Nano-Glue Could Lead to Targeted Cancer, HIV Treatment

Published June 1, 2015

University at Buffalo researchers have created a biotechnology model that shows promise for developing an HIV vaccine and targeting cancer cells.

“It’s a fairly difficult process that’s only effective in a controlled environment. Nobody has been able to devise a simple method that can work inside the body.”
Jonathan F. Lovell, PhD
Assistant professor of biomedical engineering

The researchers discovered a way to easily and effectively fasten proteins to nanoparticles by mixing them together. 

Fastening protein-based medical treatments to nanoparticles is typically difficult to do, which has limited how doctors can use proteins to treat serious disease. 

“We have proved that you can easily attach proteins to nanoparticles and, like Velcro that doesn’t unstick, it stays together,” says Jonathan F. Lovell, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who led the research.

The paper, “Functionalization of Cobalt Porphyrin–Phospholipid Bilayers With His-Tagged Ligands and Antigens,” has been published in Nature Chemistry.

3-Part Model Stimulates Immune Response

To test the new binding model’s usefulness, the researchers added to it an adjuvant, an immunological agent used to enhance the efficacy of vaccines and drug treatments. They found that the three parts — adjuvant, protein and nanoparticle — worked together to stimulate an immune response against HIV.

They also tested proteins that target cancer cells and found that the new binding model acts like a homing missile to tumors. The targeted nanoparticles have the potential to improve cancer treatment by targeting specific cancer cells in lieu of releasing anti-cancer drugs throughout the body.

Lovell plans more rigorous testing of the vaccine and tumor-targeted technologies. The researchers hope to advance to human clinical trials.

Mixing Modified Proteins and Nanoparticles

“Scientists have been able to attach proteins to nanoparticles for a while now,” says Lovell. “But it’s a fairly difficult process that’s only effective in a controlled environment. Nobody has been able to devise a simple method that can work inside the body.”

To create the biotechnology, the researchers use nanoparticles made of chlorophyll, phospholipid and cobalt.

They modify the proteins with a chain of amino acids — a polyhistidine-tag. Uncommon in medicine, polyhistidine-tags are used extensively in protein research.

The researchers then mix the modified proteins and nanoparticles in water. One end of the protein embeds into the nanoparticle’s outer layer while the rest of it protrudes like a tentacle.

Interdisciplinary Study Funded by NIH

Co-authors from the Department of Biomedical Engineering include first author Shuai Shao, a student in the UB biomedical engineering doctoral program.

Other co-authors are members of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, including Amy Jacobs, PhD, research assistant professor.

Researchers from UB’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering also contributed.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Lovell also received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award. The grant program supports high-risk, high-reward research.