Public Release:  Researchers develop buckyballs to fight allergy

Virginia Commonwealth University

RICHMOND, Va. (June 20, 2007) -- A research team has identified a new biological function for a soccer ball-shaped nanoparticle called a buckyball - the ability to block allergic response, setting the stage for the development of new therapies for allergy.

Allergic disease is the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, and while various treatments have been developed to control allergy, no cure has been found. These findings advance the emerging field of medicine known as nanoimmunology.

The researchers, from Virginia Commonwealth University and Luna Innovations Inc., a private, Roanoke, Va., research company, are the first to show that buckyballs are able to block allergic response in human cell culture experiments.

Buckyballs, or fullerenes, are nanoparticles containing 60 carbon atoms. Due to their unique structure, inertness and stability, researchers from a number of scientific fields have been investigating the tiny, hollow carbon cages to serve a variety of functions. In this study, researchers modified the buckyballs so that they were compatible with water. The new study findings were published online in the June 19 issue of the Journal of Immunology and will appear in the July 1 print issue of the journal.

"This discovery is exciting because it points to the possibility that these novel materials can one day lead to new therapies," said Chris Kepley, Ph.D., M.B.A., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology at the VCU School of Medicine.

"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 and basic immune reactions," he said.

According to Kepley, who is the principal author of the paper, the buckyballs are able to 'interrupt' the allergy/immune response by inhibiting a basic process in the cell that leads to the release of an allergic mediator. Essentially, the buckyballs are able to prevent mast cells from releasing histamine.

Mast cells are responsible for causing allergic response and are packed with granules containing histamine. They are present in nearly all tissues except blood. When mast cells are activated, inflammatory substances such as histamine, heparin and a number of cytokines are rapidly released into the tissues and blood, promoting an allergic response.

The researchers found that the unique structure of the buckyball enables it to bind to free radicals dramatically better than any anti-oxidant currently available, such as vitamin E. Free radicals are molecules that cause oxidative stress, which experts believe may be the basis of aging.

"The immune system both protects us and causes harm, so we are always interested in finding new pathways to help manage the harmful effects," said Kepley.

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This research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Researchers from VCU working with Kepley included: John J. Ryan, Ph.D., from the Department of Biology; Wei Zhao, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Pediatrics; and Lawrence Schwartz, M.D., Ph.D., and Greg Gomez, Ph.D., from the Department of Internal Medicine.

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center: Virginia Commonwealth University is the largest university in Virginia and ranks among the top 100 universities in the country in sponsored research. Located on two downtown campuses in Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in nearly 200 certificate and degree programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-three of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU's 15 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University compose the VCU Medical Center, one of the nation's leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.

About Luna Innovations Incorporated: Luna Innovations Incorporated develops and manufactures new-generation products for the healthcare, telecommunications, energy and defense markets. Our products are used to measure, monitor, protect and improve critical processes in the markets we serve. Through its disciplined commercialization business model, Luna has become a recognized leader in transitioning science to solutions. Luna is headquartered in Roanoke, Virginia. Additional information can be found at www.lunainnovations.com.

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