Research snapshot: fighting ovarian cancer with natural killer cells

February 24, 2016

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynecologic malignancy. While there are treatment options, the survival rate of women with epithelial ovarian cancer has changed little in the last 30 years.

Now, a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant awarded to University of Minnesota experts will aid a study for a new immunotherapy that could potentially treat the deadly cancer. The project will be led by Bruce Walcheck, Ph.D., professor in the University of Minnesota Veterinary and Biomedical Services Department at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Jimmy Wu, Ph.D. associate professor in the University of Minnesota Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department at the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dan Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the cell therapy program at the University of California- San Diego.

Still in its infancy, the study will look at a molecule found on the surface of natural killer (NK) cells called CD16a. The researchers will look at how the shedding of this receptor affects NK cells, and how this could influence their ability to kill ovarian cancer cells.

“We’re focusing on ovarian cancer because it’s a type of cancer that has not responded well to immunotherapy,” Walcheck said. “But we believe we can apply this approach to other cancers in the future.”

NK cells are immune cells, or white blood cells, that can bind to and kill cancer cells by the use of their CD16a receptors. But CD16a can be stripped off the cell surface when natural killers are stimulated within the tumor. This diminishes the NK cell’s ability to kill cancer cells.

This study will use techniques that allow the NK cells to activate without losing the CD16a receptor, enhancing their overall anti-cancer activity.

“The long term goal is to make a super natural killer cell in the lab and put them into patients to fight certain types of cancers better,” Walcheck said.

The project will begin as basic biomedical research, but Walcheck hopes it will lead to a cancer therapy available to humans.

“With NIH funding and a multidisciplinary research team at the University of Minnesota, we are trying to use our understanding of the immune system to enhance its ability to fight cancer,” Walcheck said.