The immune system plays a major role in cancer, from seeking out and destroying cancer cells when they first form, to eventually being overcome and even co-opted to ignore or protect the tumor mass. Clinicians and researchers have been investigating how best to boost and re-activate the immune system’s natural ability to attack cancer. Now a team at Jefferson led by the laboratories of Yuri Sykulev, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Takami Sato, M.D., from Medical Oncology have discovered how immune cells deliver a “kiss of death” to cancer.
There are many types of immune cells that can play a role in killing cancer cells. The advantage of the type of cells Sykulev studies, natural killer cells, is that they grab the cancer cell with many arms like an octopus, hold on tightly while they quickly deliver a large payload of toxins, called cytolytic granules, to the cancer cell – the kiss of death – work that Dr. Sykulev helped demonstrate. Other immune cells may attach with one or two arms, and therefore may not be able to hold on strongly enough to send a strong and rapid death signal.
Drs. Sykulev and Sato have now added a searchlight function to these NK cells, by attaching an antibody molecule that seeks out the cancer – specifically liver metastases – to help them deliver the deadly payload with more precision.