May 28, 2024

Reawakening the “killer instinct” of immune cells in cancerous tumors

Immune cells called natural killer cells (NK cells) lose their functionality when entering solid tumors, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications. Researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Cambridge discovered that NK cells adopt a dormant state within tumors, leading to a loss of production of effector mechanisms used to promote immune responses. The team found that this loss of function also occurs in human colon cancers.

To test if the loss of function could be reversed, the team targeted the IL-15 pathway, which is currently being tested in patients. This resulted in significantly increased NK cell activity and improved tumor control in mice models. The findings highlight the potential of natural killer cells in cancer treatment and provide hope for the development of new treatment strategies for solid tumors.

Professor David Withers, co-lead author of the study and professor of immune regulation at the University of Birmingham, stated that NK cells have the ability to slow down cancers but often remain dormant within tumor cells. By studying a mice model, the team was able to observe the behavior of NK cells within solid tumor environments and found that treating with Interleukin-15 could reawaken their killer instinct. This discovery opens up exciting possibilities for new types of treatment to combat solid tumor cancers.

In a related study also published in Nature Communications, the researchers discovered that dendritic cells (DCs), which play a crucial role in orchestrating anti-tumor immune responses, get trapped within cancers. Instead of trafficking to lymph nodes, where they stimulate immune responses against tumors, some DCs remain in the tumor and become exhausted. This impairs their ability to stimulate anti-tumor immune responses and even reduces the function of other immune cells.

Identifying why these DCs become trapped and how to overcome their impairment could potentially boost anti-tumor responses. The study also revealed that these dysfunctional tumor DCs can be revived using a cancer immunotherapy that is already used in clinical settings. The researchers believe that their work contributes to a better understanding of how cancers disrupt the immune system and provides insights on rescuing and improving anti-cancer immune responses.

Overall, the studies shed light on the behavior of immune cells within tumor environments and offer promising avenues for future cancer treatments. By re-awakening the killer instinct of immune cells and overcoming the impairment of dendritic cells, researchers are taking significant steps towards enhancing the body’s ability to fight off solid tumor cancers.


  1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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