Scientists at the University of Central Florida have revived the excitement around using the body’s innate immune system to fight cancer directly. Alicja Copik and her team created a nanoparticle that can activate Natural Killer cells to replicate 10,000-fold in the lab and arm themselves to attack cancer cells.
Natural Killer cells are part of the innate immune system and are primarily responsible for tagging and killing foreign cells found in the body, along with neutrophils, macrophages, and other lymphocytes. These cells attack viral or cancer cells and initiate death by cytotoxicity, releasing substances that perforate the cell membrane and cause cell lysis.
Natural Killer cells have been on the radar of cancer researchers for years since they can quickly distinguish between healthy cells and sick cells, only killing those that are foreign and targeted for destruction. However, these cells are not readily abundant and are not always active. The focus of research has been trying to grow and activate NK cells, but previous experiments caused detrimental side effects in patients.
Alicja Copik has been able to create a nanoparticle that when encountering Natural Killer cells, activates their replication by 10,000 times and initiates their “patrol” activity. With this abundance of NK cells now available to the body, the cells attack tumor cells in groups and literally eat them up as seen in the video below.
“You realize how powerful this system is when you see these cells actually tearing apart the tumors,” Copik said. “These Natural Killer cells are an army and they’re your friends. This potential therapy means you have more of these fighters and they are armed to the teeth.”
The team can extract one NK cell from a patient, expose it to nanoparticles, and grow 10,000 new cells in two weeks. This newly created army can be injected back into the patient as a new cell therapy to selectively target and kill tumor cells. The therapy could potentially be adjusted to create armies of NK cells that target specific infections such as ebola, HIV, or specific cancers.
“If the technology can be safely manufactured and is effective in clinical trials, it could allow any hospital that provides cell therapies such as bone marrow transplants to create their own advanced NK cells on-site for cancer patients,” Dr. Dean Lee, a partner of the project, said.
The therapy was recently licensed and clinical trials are to start next year. Copik and colleagues from UCF, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio founded a start-up company, Cyto-Sen Therapeutics Inc., to perform the clinical trials and develop the therapy.