Dr. Jeffrey Miller

A study out of the University of Minnesota is showing the killer instinct found in natural killer cells

Researchers at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota have developed a system to produce and expand natural killer (NK) cells derived from human-induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). These manufactured NK cells were shown as effective tumor killers, while working in unison with anti-tumor T cells.

The study, “iPSC-derived NK cells maintain high cytotoxicity and enhance in vivo tumor control in concert with T cells and anti-PD-1 therapy” was recently published in Science Translational Medicine from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Immune checkpoint blockade and other immunotherapies for cancer have shown promising results but are still limited in their effectiveness,” said Frank Cichocki, PhD, principal investigator of the study. “Adding natural killer cells to immunotherapy regimens offers some promise in this regard, but it can be limited by cell availability. To overcome this constraint, we developed a method for manufacturing natural killer cells from iPSCs.”

The team hopes that this treatment will have become an “off the shelf” option and improve outcomes in patients. A clinical trial has already started using this combination and continues to enroll patients with advanced solid tumor cancers who have failed standard checkpoint blockade treatment.

The iPSC derived NK cells that were used in the team’s published paper are not genetically modified. Based on research from the Masonic Cancer Center’s Deputy Director, Jeffrey Miller, MD, this is just the beginning of a series of studies in a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and Fate Therapeutics. Researchers are already enhancing this platform to make NK cells more effective cancer killers by making them 1) more targeted to individual cancers, 2) to give them survival advantages after they are infused and 3) to insert chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) much like the FDA approved autologous (individual patient derived) T cell products.

Muli-engineered NK cells will allow dosing of cancer specific cells that are mass produced, readily available and amenable to multi-dosing strategies. This will broaden their testing against a variety of cancers and infectious diseases. These cells are currently being tested in hospitalized patients with COVID-19. The dream of turning stem cells into cancer killers is now a reality with many NK cell trials open and accruing cancer patients. This newly published paper suggests that NK cell therapy may go well beyond the function of the infused cells and suggests that they orchestrate a broader immune response involving T cells to fight cancer.

About the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota

The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, is the Twin Cities’ only Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated ‘Outstanding’ by the National Cancer Institute. As Minnesota’s Cancer Center, we have served the entire state for more than 25 years. Our researchers, educators, and care providers have worked to discover the causes, prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer and cancer-related diseases. Learn more at cancer.umn.edu.