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Magnetic nanomaterials proposed to be used in the fight against liver fibrosis

In an article published in the journal Cells, scientists from the Baltic Federal University named after I. Kant, together with colleagues from NUST “MISiS” and the Rhine-Westphalian Technical University of Aachen compared various methods of treating liver fibrosis. This disease is accompanied by the replacement of normal liver tissue with connective (scar), not able to perform the function of the affected organ. According to scientists, the use of magnetic nanomaterials in the treatment of liver diseases can be a fundamentally new approach without the disadvantages inherent in classical methods.

Fibrosis can occur in various organs as a result of prolonged inflammation and is a reaction aimed at isolating the focus of inflammation from surrounding tissues. So, when various factors are exposed to the liver, for example, toxins, viruses, metabolic disorders, and others, chronic fibrosis may occur. The defeat of the organ in this case is associated with the death of the main type of its cells – hepatocytes – which provide most of the functions. As a result of their death and replacement with connective tissue, the liver’s function deteriorates significantly, and in the absence of treatment, cirrhosis develops. This disease is fatal, patients die within two to four years, experiencing excruciating pain in the end. Fibrosis is an insidious disease, because it is asymptomatic in the early stages, therefore it is often detected only when serious liver disorders occur.

To date, there are few effective methods of treating liver fibrosis, while all of them act indirectly, mainly through a decrease in inflammatory reactions. New drugs are also being developed whose action is aimed directly at the regulatory mechanisms of the formation of connective tissue. The target for such drugs are stellate liver cells, which play a major role in the formation of connective tissue in liver fibrosis.

Despite the advantages of new drugs, their delivery to target cells is still a difficult task, and one of the solutions may be to use magnetic nanoparticles as carriers. The most common magnetic therapeutic nanoparticles based on iron oxides. They have a small size (1–100 nm, which is approximately 50 times smaller than the smallest animal cells), and their movement in the body can be controlled using an external magnetic field. In practice, not pure nanoparticles are used, but their hybrids with other materials – for example, in the synthesis they are placed in various polymer capsules. Thus, it is possible to regulate the properties of nanoparticles: electric charge, stability under conditions of varying acidity, the ability to penetrate into cells, and it is also possible to reduce their possible toxicity.

Hybrid nanoparticles can be used not only in treatment, but also for the diagnosis of liver damage. If you place molecules that specifically bind to proteins in the cells of the connective tissue of the liver on the surface of magnetic nanoparticles, then using MRI you can detect the sites of the largest accumulation of nanoparticles and determine if there is an overgrowth of the connective tissue, and if so, assess its scale. Thanks to the new diagnostic method, patients will not have to undergo a painful biopsy procedure, which is now the gold standard for the diagnosis of liver fibrosis.

“The approach based on targeted delivery of drugs using magnetic nanoparticles is not new. For example, clinical trials of magnetic nanoparticles – carriers of docetaxel, a drug against prostate cancer, are being conducted. There is evidence that magnetic nanoparticles can effectively accumulate in the functional tissues of the liver, and therefore can really serve as carriers of drug molecules in the treatment of liver fibrosis. In our laboratory, we are engaged in similar developments, for example, testing “magnetic tweezers” for moving single cells and synthesizing nanoparticles for biomedical applications, ”says one of the researchers, head of the laboratory of new magnetic materials at the Baltic Federal University, Valeria Rodionova.

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