Columbia University Medical Center

Keeping Atherosclerosis In Check With Novel Targeted Nanomedicines

Boston, MA, & New York, NY (Feb.18, 2015) – Nanometer-sized “drones” that deliver a special type of healing molecule to fat deposits in arteries could become a new way to prevent heart attacks caused by atherosclerosis, according to a study in preclinical models by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). The findings are published in the February 18 online issue of Science Translational Medicine.

Although current treatments have reduced the number of deaths from atherosclerosis-related disease, atherosclerosis remains a dangerous health problem: Atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries is the #1 killer of women and men in the United States, resulting in one out of every four deaths. In the study, targeted biodegradable nano “drones” that delivered a special type of drug that promotes healing (“resolution”) successfully restructured atherosclerotic plaques in mice to make them more stable. This remodeling of the plaque environment would be predicted in humans to block plaque rupture and thrombosis, thereby preventing heart attacks and strokes.

“This is the first example of a targeted nanoparticle technology that reduces atherosclerosis in an animal model,” said co-senior author Omid Farokhzad, MD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory of Nanomedicine and Biomaterials at BWH and Harvard Medical School (HMS). “Years of research and collaboration have culminated in our ability to use nanotechnology to resolve inflammation, remodel and stabilize plaques in a model of advanced atherosclerosis.”

In the study, targeted nanomedicines made from polymeric building blocks that are utilized in numerous FDA-approved products to date were nanoengineered to carry an anti-inflammatory drug payload in the form of a biomimetic peptide. Furthermore, this peptide was derived from one of the body’s own natural inflammatory-resolving proteins, called Annexin A1. The way the nanomedicines were designed enabled this biological therapeutic to be released at the target site, the atherosclerotic plaque, in a controlled manner.

In mouse models with advanced atherosclerosis, researchers administered nanomedicines and relevant controls. Following five weeks of treatment with the nanomedicines, damage to the arteries was significantly repaired and plaque was stabilized.

Specifically, researchers observed a reduction of reactive oxygen species; increase in collagen, which strengthens the fibrous cap; and reduction of the plaque necrotic core. These changes were not observed with the free peptide or empty nanoparticles.

“Many researchers are trying to develop drugs that prevent heart attacks by tamping down inflammation, but that approach has some downsides,” said co-senior author Ira Tabas, MD, Richard J. Stock Professor of Medicine (Immunology) and professor of pathology & cell biology at CUMC. “One is that atherosclerosis is a chronic disease, so drugs are taken for years, even decades. An anti-inflammatory drug that is distributed throughout the entire body will also impair the immune system’s ability to fight infection.” That might be acceptable for conditions that severely affect quality of life, like rheumatoid arthritis, but “using this approach to prevent a heart attack that may never happen may not be worth the risk.”

In addition, it’s not enough to deliver an anti-inflammatory drug to the plaques, said Columbia associate research scientist Gabrielle Fredman, PhD, one of the study’s lead co-authors. “Atherosclerosis is not only inflammation; there’s also damage to the arterial wall. If the damage isn’t repaired, you may not prevent heart attacks.”

The targeted nanomedicines used in the current study were engineered by researchers at BWH. Following preliminary proof-of-principle studies at CUMC in models of inflammation, they were further tested in a clinically relevant disease model in mice and were shown to be capable of maneuvering through the blood circulation and traversing leaky regions through to the inside of the plaques, as was demonstrated by fluorescence microscopy imaging of the plaque lesions.

Researchers note that in addition to their specific “sticky” surfaces, their small sub-100-nanometer size is also a key property that facilitates the retention and accumulation of these nanoparticles within the plaques. These nanoparticles are 1000 times smaller than the tip of a single strand of human hair.

“These nanomedicines are developed using biodegradable polymers that can break up over time in the body using the bodies natural mechanisms and can be nanoengineered using scaleable chemistries and nanotechnologies, which ultimately can facilitate their rapid translation to the clinic,” said co-lead author Nazila Kamaly, PhD, instructor in the Laboratory of Nanomedicine and Biomaterials at BWH and HMS.

Researchers caution that although plaques in mice look a lot like human plaques, mice do not have heart attacks, so the real test of the nanoparticles will not come until they are tested in humans. “In this study, we’ve shown, for the first time, that a drug that promotes resolution of inflammation and repair is a viable option when the drug is delivered directly to plaques via nanoparticles,” said Dr. Tabas. To be ready for testing in humans, the team plans to fine-tune the nanoparticles to optimize drug delivery and to package them with more potent resolution-inducing drugs. “We think that we can obtain even better delivery to plaques and improve healing more than with the current peptides,” he said.

Dr. Farokhzad and colleagues have considerable expertise with bench-to-bedside translation of nanotechnologies for medical applications. Foundational work done in part by his team has led to the development and first-in-human testing of a targeted nanoparticle capable of controlling drug release for treatment of cancers, as well as the first in-human testing of a targeted nanoparticle vaccine capable of orchestrating an immune response to facilitate smoking cessation and relapse prevention.

“The inflammation-resolving targeted nanoparticles have shown exciting potential not only for the potential treatment of atherosclerosis as described here, but also for other therapeutic areas, including wound repair, for example, as described in the Feb. 9 online issue of Journal of Clinical Investigation, in addition to other applications currently under way with our collaborators,” Dr. Farokhzad said. “I’m optimistic that with additional animal validation we will also consider the human testing of the inflammation-resolving targeted nanoparticles for a myriad of unmet medical needs—these are exciting times in medicine and the future of nanomedicine is incredibly bright.”


This work was supported by a Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology (PEN) Award, HHSN268201000045C, from the NIH (O.C.F., I.T.); NIH Pathway to Independence K99 grant HL119587 (G.F.); the Welcome Trust Programme Grant (086867/Z/08); NIH grants CA151884 and the David Koch-Prostate Cancer Foundation Award in Nanotherapeutics (O.C.F.); and NIH grants HL106019, HL075662, and HL054591 (I.T.). Other contributing authors include Mauro Perretti, Jaclyn Milton, Stefano Spolitu, Devram Ghorpade, Raymond Chiasson and George Kuriakose.


O.C.F. discloses his financial interest in BIND Biosciences, Selecta Biosciences, and Blend Therapeutics, three biotechnology companies developing nanoparticle technologies for medical applications. BIND, Selecta, and Blend did not support the research in this study, and currently these companies have no rights to any technology or intellectual property developed as part of this research.


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Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) is a 793-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare. BWH has more than 3.5 million annual patient visits, is the largest birthing center in New England and employs nearly 15,000 people. The Brigham’s medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in patient care, quality improvement and patient safety initiatives, and its dedication to research, innovation, community engagement and educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Biomedical Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, more than 1,000 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by nearly $650 million in funding. For the last 25 years, BWH ranked second in research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) among independent hospitals. BWH continually pushes the boundaries of medicine, including building on its legacy in transplantation by performing a partial face transplant in 2009 and the nation’s first full face transplant in 2011. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses’ and Physicians’ Health Studies and the Women’s Health Initiative.  For more information and resources, please visit BWH’s online newsroom.