A new class of drugs based on nanosized buckminster-fullerenes could open up a huge new field of medicine with potential treatments for illnesses such as allergies, arthritis and heart disease.
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University in the US working with nanomaterials company Luna Innovations have shown for the first time that the football-shaped buckminster-fullerenes or ‘bucky balls’ could prevent allergic reactions in human cell cultures. The research group found that when human cell cultures were incubated with fullerenes prior to an immune system challenge there was a profound reduction in the release of histamines and inhibition of pathways that led to inflammation. Trials in mice also found that the nanoparticles could also significantly reduce anaphylaxis – a potentially deadly allergic reaction (J Immunol 2007, 179, 665).
Senior author Christopher Kepley said that these nanoparticles could potentially be used to treat hay fever, asthma or any disease where there is a strong mast cell involvement. ‘Researchers in many fields are aware of the potential fullerenes have, however, we are the first to show they can turn off the allergic response.’
Fullerenes, which are extremely potent anti-oxidants, are thought to work by mopping up reactive oxygen species which can cause an immune reaction. This mode of action is very different to how conventional anti-allergy drugs like anti-histamines work as they target a specific receptor, whereas bucky balls act at a cellular level soaking up oxidants. Kepley’s group also demonstrated that human cell cultures grew normally in the presence of these fullerenes, an important consideration as other carbon nanostructures like nanotubes can disrupt a cell’s function.
Bob Lenk, president of Luna’s Nanoworks division, describes the market for this type of pharmaceutical as potentially huge. He said that fullerenes are much more potent than conventional biological antioxidants like vitamins C or E that you could buy in a health food shop. ‘We’re interested in all applications where pathogenic free radicals cause mischief,’ he added.
Kepley is currently trying to secure a $1.6m grant from the US National Institute of Health to carry out further tests on fullerenes. He now plans to attach antigens specific to histamine-releasing mast cells to fullerenes so that they can be targeted to the appropriate cells but says it will be at least four to five years before these type of treatments start appearing on the market.