Researchers have found microscopic particles of protein-coated gold can prevent inflammation, a normal biological process that can be harmful in people with certain medical conditions. The researchers are now studying whether these gold particles can help children with inflammatory bowel disease, a group of painful and debilitating disorders that are difficult to manage with current treatments.

Dr. Stuart Turvey, investigator and Director, Clinical Research at CFRI and the Aubrey J. Tingle Professor of Pediatric Immunology at UBC, is a lead senior author of the study, which was published on July 17, 2015 in ACS Nano

In this research, scientists tested extremely small particles, known as nanoparticles, on blood samples in the laboratory to determine if the nanoparticles would interrupt the molecular processes that lead to inflammation. Typically, inflammation helps protect the body from disease and injury, however, in some health conditions the body’s immune system becomes overactive and triggers inflammation that damages healthy tissue. 

The nanoparticles in this study were made of tiny balls of pure gold covered with chains of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Scientists are able to change the properties of the nanoparticles by manipulating the amino acid chains on their surface.

“We found the particles were effective in turning off a pathway that leads to inflammation called the Toll-like receptor pathway,” Dr. Turvey says. “We also found that by changing the makeup of the amino acid chains on the surface of the particles, we could make them more or less effective at inhibiting inflammation. This means we may be able to fine-tune the anti-inflammatory effects of the nanoparticles to target different conditions.”

The researchers are now investigating whether these particles can be used to treat childhood inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a group conditions characterized by inflammation of the colon and small intestines. Symptoms of IBD include painful abdominal cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. Children with IBD may have difficulty absorbing nutrients that are important for healthy growth and development. They are also at an increased risk for developing colorectal cancers. Approximately 100 children are diagnosed with IBD at BC Children’s Hospital every year.

Currently, children with IBD are treated with drugs that suppress their entire immune systems in order to reduce inflammation. This puts children at an increased risk for infection and certain types of cancer. The particles in this research have the potential to reduce inflammation without causing harmful side effects and may also one day be used to treat other inflammation-driven human diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis.

“This is an exciting, new way to develop medicines,” Dr. Turvey says. “We’re looking at conditions that don’t currently have very effective treatments and we’re trying to embrace the power of nanoparticles to fill that gap.”

Read more: Yang H, Fung SY, Xu S, Sutherland DP, Kollmann TR, Liu M, Turvey SE. “Amino Acid-Dependent Attenuation of Toll-like Receptor Signaling by Peptide-Gold Nanoparticle Hybrids,” in ACS Nano, June 22, 2015.

Dr. Stuart Turvey (pictured above) is an investigator and the Director, Clinical Research at CFRI at BC Children’s Hospital, a pediatric immunologist at BC Children’s Hospital, a clinical scholar at the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Aubrey J. Tingle Professor of Pediatric Immunology in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia.

Hong Yang, the study’s lead author, is a Research Associate in the Turvey Lab. Study co-authors include Dr. Shan-Yu Fung, a Research Associate in the Turvey Lab; Dr. Tobias Kollmann, a CFRI investigator, a Pediatric Infectious Disease Consultant at BC Children’s Hospital, and an Associate Professor in the UBC Department of Pediatrics; and Darren P. Sutherland, a Research Assistant in the Kollmann lab at the time the research in the study was conducted. Dr. Shuyun Xu and Dr. Mingyao Liu at the University of Toronto University Health Network also collaborated on the paper.

This research was made possible by support from BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.