Nanoparticles — those teeny particles no larger than 100 nanometers — can be used to program immune cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells inside the body, researchers said Monday.

Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have developed biodegradable nanoparticles that can genetically program T cells to attack cancer cells and theoretically also could be used to fight infectious diseases. The procedure rapidly cleared or slowed the progression of leukemia in a mouse model.

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The research was published Monday in Nature Nanotechnology.

"The reprogrammed cells begin to work within 24 to 48 hours and continue to produce these receptors for weeks. This suggests that our technology has the potential to allow the immune system to quickly mount a strong enough response to destroy cancerous cells before the disease becomes fatal," senior author Matthias Stephan said in a press release.

Current technology requires a patient’s T cells to be removed and genetically engineered at special processing facilities before being infused back into the patient. The new technology could eliminate the lengthy, time-consuming step.

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Stephan said eventually, nanoparticles could become an off-the-shelf, self-administered treatment for not only cancer but for infectious diseases.

Stephan’s approach turns T cells into CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T cells, which have been promising in treating leukemia in cellular immunotherapy clinical trials. The nanoparticles “educate” the immune system to zero in on cancer cells — all within two days.

The approach is a long way from human trials. Stephan currently is working with companies that can produce clinical-grade nanoparticles and turning his attention to solid tumors.

"We hope that this can be used for infectious diseases like hepatitis or HIV," Stephan said, providing “provide patients with receptors they don't have in their own body. You just need a tiny number of programmed T cells to protect against a virus."

Russian and Swiss chemists already have created biosafe luminescent nanoparticles for imaging tumors and blood vessels, a study published last month in Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces said. The nanoparticles overcome the drawbacks of organic agents, which rapidly disintegrate in the body, and the toxicity of quantum dots.