Skip to main content
Carrington College Blog

Could 3-D vaccines be the future of fighting cancer?

December 13, 2014

3-D vaccines present a new form of medicine that may be able to treat and prevent cancer.In the last few years, the term 3-D has become a buzzword. But when it comes to medicine, certified medical assistants will want to pay attention to 3-D vaccines, the next-generation form of medicine and a very promising, potentially groundbreaking treatment.

How 3-D vaccines work

For a new study published in Nature, researchers designed a 3-D vaccine, which is a programmable biomaterial that assembles itself into a disease-combating structure after it’s injected into the body.1 The structure holds thousands of tiny nooks and crannies that house dendritic cells, the body’s “surveillance system.” When dendritic cells spot something harmful, they set off the alarm for immune responses. Thus, researchers suggest that this mechanism might be able to fight and even prevent cancer and infectious disease such as HIV.

“We can create 3-D structures using minimally-invasive delivery to enrich and activate a host’s immune cells to target and attack harmful cells in vivo,” the study’s senior author Dr. David Mooney, who is the Robert P. Pinkas Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard SEAS, said in a press release.1

The structure’s rod-like material is biodegradable and made from silica, also known as mesoporous silica rods (MSRs). Once injected into the body, the rods spontaneously assemble at the vaccination site to form a three-dimensional scaffold. Perhaps most importantly, the MSRs are constructed with small holes, called nanopores, in which researchers can load any variety of drugs in attempt to treat a range infections.

Dendritic cells’ role in immunotherapy

Those with a medical assistant diploma may know that immunotherapy is defined as the prevention or treatment of disease with substances that stimulate the immune response. When cancer strikes the body, one’s immune system may not be able to defeat the disease on its own. Normally, the immune response identifies germs, colds and other infections as foreign invaders, but cancerous cells are less obvious. As the American Cancer Society puts it, cancer cells are less like enemy soldiers of a foreign army and more like traitors within one’s own army.2

That’s where dendritic cells come in. Dendritic cells are being used in immunotherapy as a safe way to induce anti-tumor immunity, even in patients in advanced stages of disease. Studies from Stanford suggest these antigen-producing cells have been effective in treating patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.3

In the 3-D vaccine, the activated dendritic cells exit the scaffold and travel to the lymph nodes, where they set off the alarm and direct the body’s immune system to attack specific cells such as cancerous cells. The MSRs biodegrade and dissolve naturally within approximately 12 weeks.1

“Nano-sized mesoporous silica particles have already been established as useful for manipulating individual cells from the inside, but this is the first time that larger particles, in the micron-sized range, are used to create a 3D in vivo scaffold that can recruit and attract tens of millions of immune cells,” co-lead author Dr. Jaeyun Kim, an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University and a former Wyss Institute postdoctoral fellow, explained in the press release.1

Vast potential

Currently, the newest 3-D vaccine examined in the Nature study has only been tested in mice, but it has been shown highly effective.1 In the treatment, the injectable 3-D scaffold recruited and drew millions of dendritics cells in the host mouse, and then it sent the cells to the lymph nodes and caused a powerful immune response.

The researchers are optimistic that 3-D vaccines may open doors for boundless new forms of treatment.

“Although right now we are focusing on developing a cancer vaccine, in the future we could be able to manipulate which type of dendritic cells or other types of immune cells are recruited to the 3-D scaffold by using different kinds of cytokines released from the MSRs,” co-lead author Aileen Li, a graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in bioengineering at Harvard SEAS, said in the press release. “By tuning the surface properties and pore size of the MSRs, and therefore controlling the introduction and release of various proteins and drugs, we can manipulate the immune system to treat multiple diseases.”

Easily manufactured

To make the news even more exciting for those in medical assistant programs, the vaccines are ease to make and can be manufactured swiftly. Because of this, they have the potential to be available to confront even an emerging infectious disease. The researchers said they believe 3-D vaccines could be put to use inside and outside the clinic.1

Students in the medical industry should keep an eye on 3-D vaccines as research continues to shed more light on the promising treatment.

1Injectable 3D vaccines could fight cancer and infectious diseases. (2014, December 12). Retrieved December 12, 2014, from

2What the immune system does. (2014, September 5). Retrieved December 12, 2014, from

3​Dendritic Cell Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2014, from