It’s well known that the body’s immune system is responsible for fighting off illnesses like colds, flus, and common viruses. But not many people know that it actually can fight off much more, as it’s also constantly surveying foreign substances and destroying cells that have the potential to become cancerous. Scientists have now figured out how to utilize the power of the immune system to fight cancer once it’s already begun. One cancer that has been particularly successful with this form of treatment is prostate cancer.
A team led by Dr. Aaron LeBeau of the University of Minnesota are currently working on a new kind of immunotherapy treatment that uses particular kinds of immune cell called natural killer cells (NK cells). NK cells work like officers who are constantly patrolling the body to find and destroy foreign cells that could be infected with a virus, bacteria, or cancer. Utilizing these NK cells to treat cancer has some advantages over other kinds of immunotherapy treatments.
What are the advantages of using NK cells?
First, NK cells are readily available. They are easy to separate from the blood and can be grown in the lab.
Second, there is no need for donor matching when using NK cells because one single donor can provide NK cells for several patients.
This leads to the third advantage: NK cell treatments may be much cheaper than other immunotherapy treatments.
Are there any disadvantages to using NK cells?
There are still some tricky areas that researchers need to work out in NK cell treatment. For instance, the therapies are currently unable to travel exactly where they need to go, also known as “targeting.” Tumors are also very adept at hiding from the immune system by suppressing it locally.
One way that researchers are combating this problem is by developing a “targeting device” to attach to NK cells. This device would identify prostate cancer cells and leave normal tissue alone. Dr. LeBeau and his team are working on a “chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that could help to target tumors. The genetically engineered protein notices a certain protein on the surface of prostate cancer cells and then prompts the NK cell to kill it. This project has recently won the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) Challenge Award, which will soon allow it to move onto a testing phase with animal models. A clinical trial could begin in four years.