Design of Self-Assembling Nanostructures to Promote Immune Tolerance

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In autoimmune diseases, which affect more than 23 million Americans, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. This occurs when the process that normally controls self-reactive inflammatory cells (i.e. tolerance) fails. In multiple sclerosis (MS), the myelin sheath, which insulates nerves, is recognized as a foreign antigen. Demyelination by immune cells results in serious symptoms of neurodegeneration. Current treatments for MS are not curative, but rather manage symptoms by broadly suppressing the immune system, leaving patients unable to fight infection. New therapies that are more specific and effective could greatly improve the quality of life for patients. Biomaterials offer specific advantages for generating antigen-specific tolerance, such as cargo protection, targeted delivery, and controlled release of signals. Additionally, recent reports demonstrate that materials themselves can be intrinsically immunogenic. Two promising biomaterials-based strategies for combating autoimmunity involve: 1) delivery of self-antigen with a regulatory molecule or 2) delivery of self-antigen alone. Aim 1 of this dissertation focuses on the first strategy, creating a novel delivery system for myelin peptide and GpG, an immunomodulatory oligonucleotide. This approach involves electrostatic self-assembly of the two immune signals, eliminating the need for a carrier that could exacerbate inflammation, while still offering attractive features of biomaterials, such as co-delivery. The goal is for immune cells to encounter both signals simultaneously, biasing the response towards tolerance. This work represents the first studies using self-assembled materials to target toll-like receptor signaling, recently shown to be implicated in many autoimmune diseases. Aim 2 of this dissertation is based on the second strategy above, which relies on evidence that changing the trafficking and processing of a self-antigen can impact the development of inflammation or tolerance. Quantum dots, NPs that are intrinsically fluorescent and rapidly drain to lymph nodes, can be decorated with a large and controllable number of myelin peptides. These key features of QDs were exploited to reveal that parameters of self-antigen display (i.e. dose, density) impact biodistribution and immune cell uptake, and are directly correlated to the level of tolerance induced. Together, the described nanotechnologies offer opportunities to probe important questions towards the design of antigen-specific therapies.