There’s a group of “killers” protecting your body against infections and eliminating potentially cancerous tissues—natural killers, or NK cells, are first responders of the innate immune system.
"There's a lot of interest right now in NK cells as a potential target of immunotherapy," says Joseph Sun, an NK cell expert leading studies into the complex physiology of these immune fighters. "The more we can understand what drives these cells, the better we can program them to fight disease."
Sun and colleagues were interested in NK metabolism, specifically whether these cells rely on aerobic glycolysis to fuel their protective activities, like their T cell counterparts. Insights into how NK cells are powered would help understand the mechanics of how these cells eliminate pathogens and tumors.
The team used an animal model to examine the biology of NK cells in an in vivo setting and found that NK cells go through a spike in aerobic glycolysis about five days before the same surge occurs in T cells.
These findings line up with the theory that NK cells are a critical part of mounting a rapid, early response to infections, insights that can be used towards developing more potent NK cell-based immunotherapies for cancer patients.
"If you're growing these cells in a dish and you push them to divide too rapidly, they may not have as much potential to undergo aerobic glycolysis when you put them into a patient," explained Sam Sheppard, another researcher on Sun’s team.
According to the scientists, researchers creating protocols for NK cell clinical trials should keep this in mind, finding a “sweet spot” between promoting the replication of NK cells for administration into the patient and preserving their energy to destroy tumors once inside the body.