Natural Killer Cell Therapy

Washington University Physicians and researchers at Siteman are pioneering a new form of cellular therapy known as natural killer cell (or NK cell) therapy. Only available in clinical trials at this time, natural killer cell therapy is a promising development in the ongoing effort to cure cancer.

What is natural killer cell therapy?

Natural killer cell therapy is a type of cellular immunotherapy, just like CAR T-cell therapy. Like T-cells, NK cells form part of the immune system and attack germs and other malignant cells. Unlike T-cells, however, NK cells are not tailored to specific antigens. Instead, they are a cellular Swiss Army knife that can detect and destroy any cell that looks abnormal.

While NK cells can recognize and attack cancer cells, they unfortunately don’t live long enough or multiply quickly enough to wipe them out entirely.  That’s where physicians and scientists come in. They enhance the NK cells by treating them with immune system proteins called cytokines. This helps them respond to cancer cells and improves their stamina and longevity. Sometimes, NK cells are also enhanced with chimeric antigen receptors (or CARS) to make them even more attuned to cancer cells.

In some ways, NK cell therapy is similar to CAR T-cell therapy. Both transform or enhance immune system cells so they can effectively fight cancer. One key difference between the two, however, is that the NK cells used in the treatment come from a donor, rather than the patient. 

What are the advantages of natural killer cell therapy?

There are many benefits to NK cell therapy.

  • NK cells don’t need to be genetically engineered to recognize cancer cells. This means that they are often faster to prepare. It only takes 24 hours to get them ready to infuse into the patient.
  • NK cells are a treatment option for chemotherapy-resistant acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
  • Compared to other forms of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and even other immunotherapies, NK cell therapy does not cause many side effects. Patients tend to tolerate it well.

Natural killer cell therapy at Siteman

 At this time, natural killer cell therapy is only accessible through clinical trials. Fortunately, Washington University Physicians at Siteman are some of the nation’s top experts in this emerging field.

Research conducted at our center helped demonstrate how NK cells could be adapted into a tool to fight cancer. A major Phase I clinical trial housed at the Washington University School of Medicine, for instance, showed that treating NK cells with a cytokine called interleukin-12 helped them to destroy cancer cells in patients with acute myeloid leukemia, some of whom achieved complete remissions. This study became an important building block for the ongoing exploration and expansion of NK cell therapy.

If your oncologist believes NK cell therapy could be a good option for you, you will be enrolled in one of the clinical trials we offer onsite.