“Two years ago, clinicians noticed that patients in significant numbers were having problems with these stents, probably because the endothelium wasn’t properly healed,” says Levy. “Clotting, myocardial infarctions, and sudden deaths occurred, and this has caused a big uproar over stent usage.”
Levy hopes that magnetically directing new endothelial cells to blood vessels may solve many of the problems that stents currently face. His team plans to continue experimenting on rats, using endothelial cells derived from rats instead of cows, to minimize risk of rejection. Now that he has found a way to direct cells to metal stents, Levy is also looking at other potential therapies, including nitric oxide, which is known to relax and dilate blood vessels. He is currently engineering cells to genetically express enzymes that produce nitric oxide, and he will eventually load them with iron-oxide nanoparticles that will drive them to the sites of stents, further opening arteries.
Levy adds that the magnetic-based technique has applications outside of cardiovascular therapy. For example, in treating lung cancer, clinicians often use metal stents to keep airways open. However, a patient’s tumor may continue to grow, eventually obstructing the passage despite the stenting. Magnetically targeted therapies could help deliver specific drugs to stent sites to treat tumors, in addition to keeping airways open.
“Metallic implants are also widely used in other areas, like orthopedics, for complex fractures, and correcting spinal curvature, where cell therapies could also be helpful,” says Levy. “Steel implants are widely used in medicine, and there are all sorts of situations where applications could be used.”
What’s more, Levy envisions that such therapies can be applied using conventional MRI machines. The magnetic field generated by MRI cores is an order of magnitude more powerful than the ones Levy used in his experiments, so fewer iron-oxide nanoparticles could produce the same effect.
Robert Langer, Institute Professor at MIT, believes that Levy’s technique is a promising step toward directed cell therapies. “They were able to localize more drugs into the targeted areas,” he says. “I think it’s a neat idea that has a lot of potential.”