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Analytical Chemistry

Training Immune Cells

Researchers trap T cells in emulsion droplets in hopes of reprogramming them to attack new disease targets

by Journal News and Community
March 18, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 11

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Credit: J. Am. Chem. Soc.
T cells (orange) become trapped inside water-in-oil emulsion droplets formed by a polymer surfactant (green and blue). On the inner surface of the droplets, the cells adhere to gold nanoparticles (yellow dots) decorated with an antigen (red bars).
09111-scicon-tcellschematiccxd.jpg
Credit: J. Am. Chem. Soc.
T cells (orange) become trapped inside water-in-oil emulsion droplets formed by a polymer surfactant (green and blue). On the inner surface of the droplets, the cells adhere to gold nanoparticles (yellow dots) decorated with an antigen (red bars).
TRAPPED!
[+]Enlarge
Credit: J. Am. Chem. Soc.
These microscope images show T cells (arrows) adhering to the inner surfaces of water-in-oil emulsion droplets.
09111-scicon-tcellmicrographcxd.jpg
Credit: J. Am. Chem. Soc.
These microscope images show T cells (arrows) adhering to the inner surfaces of water-in-oil emulsion droplets.

Biologists would like to train a patient’s own immune system to treat diseases such as cancer. German researchers have reported a new step in that direction with a method that traps immune system T cells inside microscopic emulsion droplets and then exposes the cells to chemical signals that could teach them to coordinate attacks on disease targets (J. Am. Chem. Soc., DOI: 10.1021/ja311588c). Previous methods for training cells relied on two-dimensional surfaces, but the new approach mimics the three-dimensional environment inside the body in which T cells learn about possible threats. A team led by Joachim P. Spatz of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems created an artificial 3-D environment by mixing two streams of liquid in a microfluidic system: a fluorinated polymer surfactant linked to gold nanoparticles dissolved in oil and an aqueous mixture of T cells. When the streams meet, water-in-oil droplets form with the nanoparticles on the water-facing surface and T cells enclosed inside. When the researchers decorated the gold particles with protein fragments known to interact with T cells, the cells latched on as if they were interacting with other immune cells. In the future, a doctor could isolate a cancer patient’s T cells, expose the cells to antigens specific to the cancer, and then transplant the cells back to direct the immune system to attack a tumor.

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