Racing car drivers are forever tinkering with their cars, trying to streamline them and soup up their engines because while fast is good, faster is better. Researchers do the same things with potential anti-cancer therapies, tinkering with them to make them safer and more readily available to patients while also boosting their ability to fight cancer.
That’s what researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), in a CIRM-funded study, have done. They’ve taken immune system cells – with the already impressive name of ‘natural killer’ (NK) cells – and made them even deadlier to cancers.
These natural killer (NK) cells are considered one of our immune system’s frontline weapons against outside threats to our health, things like viruses and cancer. But sometimes the cancers manage to evade the NKs and spread throughout the body or, in the case of leukemia, throughout the blood.
Lots of researchers are looking at ways of taking a patient’s own NK cells and, in the lab boosting their ability to fight these cancers. However, using a patient’s own cells is both time consuming and very, very expensive.
Dr. Dan Kaufman and his team at UCSD decided it would be better to try and develop an off-the-shelf approach, a therapy that could be mass produced from a single batch of NK cells and made available to anyone in need.
Using the iPSC method (which turns tissues like skin or blood into embryonic stem cell-like cells, capable of becoming any other cell in the body) they created a line of NK cells. Then they removed a gene called CISH which slows down the activities of cytokines, acting as a kind of brake or restraint on the immune system.
In a news release, Dr. Kaufman says removing CISH had a dramatic effect, boosting the power of the NK cells.
“We found that CISH-deleted iPSC-derived NK cells were able to effectively cure mice that harbor human leukemia cells, whereas mice treated with the unmodified NK cells died from the leukemia.”
Dr. Kaufman says the next step is to try and develop this approach for testing in people, to see if it can help people whose disease is not responding to conventional therapies.
“Importantly, iPSCs provide a stable platform for gene modification and since NK cells can be used as allogeneic cells (cells that come from donors) that do not need to be matched to individual patients, we can create a line of appropriately modified iPSC-derived NK cells suitable for treating hundreds or thousands of patients as a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy.”
The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.