Natural killer immune cells could combat cancer

JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

UC Davis investigators awarded $1.2 million grant to study immune cell activity in stem cell transplantation

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute grant will provide a team of UC Davis investigators $300,000 per year for four years, a grant which will allow investigators to examine the development and activation of natural killer immune cells by studying the effects of cytomegalovirus during stem cell treatment.

Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, aside from being used currently for the treatment of a variety of disorders ranging from genetic diseases such as aplastic anemia to hematologic cancers such as leukemias/lymphomas, also allows for the study on how the immune system develops from the earliest stem cell all the way to [thymus, bone marrow and natural killer cells],” said Dr. William Murphy, the principal investigator and UC Davis professor in dermatology, in an email interview. “There is also a period of profound immune deficiency following the transplant leaving the patient highly susceptible to opportunistic infections (bacterial, fungal, viral) which is also analogous to AIDS conditions.”  

CMV is a part of the herpesvirus family, which has been around since the prehistoric era and has overgone 22 to 400 million years of evolution.

This means that herpesvirus are really good at what they do as viruses, and CMV, in particular, is the master at regulating the immune responses of the infected host,” said Dr. Peter Barry, a UC Davis professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “CMV has a large viral genome, encoding up to 200 viral proteins, half of which have functions that impair host immune responses. This virus is “armed for bear” when it comes to dealing with our immune system.”

Following stem cell transplantation, CMV is no longer suppressed by the immune system, leading to infection and sometimes even death. The activation of CMV encourages the production of natural killer immune cells, which are cells that have evolved to control and combat CMV. This research will look at the effects of CMV on the natural killer cells with the goal of figuring out how natural killer cells could be used against cancer. The characteristic of natural killer immune cells to effectively fight CMV-infected cells has led researchers to look at it as potential cancer therapy in cases where stem cell transplants are used as a cancer treatment.

Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is a treatment for hematologic cancers and genetic diseases and thousands of transplants take place each year,” said Cordelia Dunai, a UC Davis Ph.D. candidate in the graduate group in immunology working in Murphy’s lab. “Even though it is a common treatment, we are still learning how to optimize it for improved patient outcomes. Natural killer cells are one of the first blood cells to reconstitute after transplant and they are very important as they can protect against cancer and viruses.”

 

Written by: Kriti Varghese — science@theaggie.org

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