A recent project at the University of Chicago aims to mobilize the most potent weapon of all in the battle against cancer: the patient’s own body.

 The treatment uses a “nanoparticle cocktail,” or combination of drugs, to drive a process called checkpoint blockade immunotherapy. In layman’s terms: “When a patient has cancer, the immunity cells are like a parked car—they don’t move,” says Wenbin Lin, a professor of chemistry at U. of C. and one of the creators of this therapy, which has shown promise in treating kidney, lung, and skin cancers. “Checkpoint blockade lets you remove the brake, and all the immunity cells head into the cancer cells.” Here’s how it works:

1When cancerous cells first develop, the body’s T cells attack them. But as the bad cells multiply, they insidiously release signals that suppress the body’s immune system, allowing the cancer to spread.

2In this new therapy, doctors would give patients an intravenous treatment comprising zinc and a drug called Oxaliplatin (commonly used to treat colon cancer), both contained in nanoparticles. How small are the nanoparticles? About a million would fit on a red blood cell.

3Doctors then shine near-infrared light on a tumor, and the light’s energy activates the cocktail’s molecules.
This helps fight cancer cells while also blocking the malevolent chemical signal that tells the T cells to lie low.

4When tested on mice, the treatment not only dissolved the targeted tumor but also traveled to malignancies elsewhere in the body and knocked them out, too. Lin hopes to begin human clinical trials later this year.