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Unlocking the potential of Natural Killer cells could be key to fighting cancer

Researchers believe they can harness the body's natural defenses to fight the disease

Photo (c) vitanovski - Fotolia
It’s a fact that not too many people realize, but the ability to fight and beat diseases like cancer is already inside of us. In fact, under normal circumstances, the body is constantly fighting and killing off cells that would form tumors if left to their own devices.

Cancer develops when the body encounters a problem that inhibits its natural killer (NK) cells from doing their job and killing off these dangerous cells.

With this framework in mind, researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, with colleagues from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, are conducting a study to see if they can “turn on” these NK cells in order to fight cancer.

Boosting the immune system

The study is being led by Dr. Sandra Nicholson and Dr. Nicholas Huntington, who believe that NK cells are a key part of the body’s defenses when it comes to fighting dangerous diseases.

“Natural Killer cells are a key part of our immune system that locate other cells posing a danger to health either because they are infected or because they are becoming a cancer cell,” said Nicholson.

The problem is that NK cells can often become immobilized if they are not able to stop cancer from developing in the body. The researchers discovered that the cause of this immobilization is a “protein brake” inside of the NK cells which stop them from being able to respond to a protein that is necessary for destroying cancer cells.

However, the researchers found that the NK cells were able to resume killing cancer cells when they removed this protein brake. They theorize that providing this boost to the immune system could go a long way towards fighting the disease and giving patients a chance to beat it.

Providing new drugs and therapies

In time, the researchers hope that a new class of drugs may be able to be created that would allow NK cells to work efficiently to fight cancer and other diseases. They also posit that their work could lead to new therapies that could be beneficial.

“We are hopeful our research will lead to new immunotherapies that supercharge the body’s Natural Killer cell, and maintain it in a highly active state to more efficiently and specifically fight cancer,” said Huntington.

The full study has been published in the journal Nature Immunology.

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