Israeli Team Chosen to Lead EU Medical Nanotech Project

The winning Israeli team will develop nanoparticles capable of tracking the effects of cell injection therapies for a number of diseases, including cancer and autism

The team of Israeli reseaechers is led by Prof. Rachela Popovtzer of Bar-Ilan University.
The team of Israeli reseaechers is led by Prof. Rachela Popovtzer of Bar-Ilan University. University of Bar Ilan

Israeli researchers have been chosen to lead a European Union project to develop nanoparticles capable of tracking the effects of cell injection therapies.

The nTRACK project, which is part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program, will launch on October 16.

Dozens of research groups competed for the EU grant to lead the project, but the winning proposal came from a group led by Prof. Rachela Popovtzer of Bar-Ilan University. Popovtzer has spent the last decade developing nanoparticles for medical use.

Cell therapy involves injecting either stem cells or other types of cells, such as modified immune-system cells, into patients to heal tissue or treat a disease. Some such therapies are already in use, but many are still in the experimental stages.

The project’s goal is to develop a tracking nanoparticle that will be ready for clinical testing on human beings within four years. The nanoparticle will track the injected cells to see where they go in the body and what effects they produce, thereby enabling researchers to determine how successful the therapy is.

“The goal is effectively to develop a clinical method that will allow us to track cells and will be suited to any technology – one that could be spotted by devices like an MRI or CT,” Popovtzer said.

There are currently experimental cell therapies for a wide variety of diseases, including cancer, autism and eye disease, she said. “The main problem is that so far, these therapies don’t affect all patients the same way and the success rate varies. The variation is very large, and it’s not clear why this works on some patients and not on others.”

Moreover, she said, “People wait for months to see how the body reacts. For cancer therapies, it’s a minimum of two months; for stem-cell therapies in other disease, you wait even longer to see if the results are positive.”

But a nanoparticle tracker could theoretically provide results much more quickly, and also help explain the variations in efficacy.

Over the past several years, Popovtzer has created and injected millions of nanoparticles into cells without damaging the cells’ functioning. She has also been able to track her nanoparticles in mice using MRIs and CTs.

“We’ve tried the particles on different types of cells, including T cells, cancerous cells and stem cells, and we’ve succeeded in tracking them with the devices,” she said.

In addition to monitoring the effects of existing experimental therapies, Popovtzer hopes the nanoparticle tracker will help researchers develop a model of how an injected cell moves through the body and what it does there.

“That would help us predict or know at a very early stage what the therapy’s potential for success is in every patient,” she explained. “We’d also be able to analyze in mid-treatment whether it’s failing, why, and if it can be fixed.”