Investigators working with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, are harnessing the power of the immune system to treat cancer, including prostate cancer. Now, PCF funded investigator Dr. Aaron LeBeau, of the University of Minnesota and his team are developing a novel and provocative new type of immunotherapy using a specific type of immune cell called natural killer cells, or NK cells for short. These cells essentially travel around the body looking for and killing cells infected with a virus, bacteria, or blood cells.
What are NK Cell Advantages?
NK cells have several potential advantages versus other types of immunotherapy. For starters, a single patient requires an infusion of ten billion NK cells. Moreover, we can make these cells ourselves. NK cells can easily be isolated from blood and grown in the lab. Additionally, they do not require donor matching, a process similar to that used in blood transfusions, so a single donor could provide, in theory, NK cells for many patients. The NK cell treatments can be significantly more economical than other immunotherapies.
NK therapies face some hurdles including a lock of “targeted” action—they do not necessarily travel where they are needed. Tumors may influence the environment immediately around them and suppress the immune system, locally triggering a reaction not sought after.
One key work around is to design a “targeting device” to the NK cell that would recognize prostate cancer cells and not normal tissues. In this spirit, Dr. LeBeau and his team are creating a specialized CAR-T to accomplish tumor targeting. The CAR-T is a genetically engineered protein that recognizes a particular protein on the surface of the prostate cancer cells and activates the NK cell to kill the tumor cell.
Supported by the PCF Challenge Award, the investigative team will start testing in animal models in the Fall of 2019. Clinical trials in humans could start within 4 years.