Treating cancer using the patient's immune system

Grant Project Details:

Bruce Walcheck, PhD
| St. Paul, MN
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Grant Description

Cancer is a difficult disease to treat because it is hard to detect within the body. Cancer sneaks in to normal cells and changes them to cancer cells over time. The immune system mistakes cancer cells for healthy cells, so they are not attacked.

One of the cells in a healthy immune system, the Natural Killer cell, has special protein receptors that allow it to pinpoint and kill the cancer cells. The problem, though, is that these receptors get clipped off before the Natural Killer cell can destroy enough cancer to stop the disease.  The cancer, therefore, easily outpaces the immune system.

If we can make the protein receptors stronger, Natural Killer cells can destroy cancer cells faster. A patient’s immune system would also be able to fight the cancer without as much aid from the standard drugs used today.

We know the receptors get clipped off the surface of Natural Killer cells by a protease, an enzyme that breaks the bond between the Natural Killer cell and its cancer receptor. Researchers also know where in the bond the receptor is cut and which particular enzyme process weakens the bond. For this knowledge to make a difference, though, the Natural Killer cells have to be altered and grown so the protein receptors remain intact and work with a patient’s immune system to kill cancer.

Scientists have engineered a gene to make a protein receptor that can’t be clipped. Natural Killer cells with this special gene will have protein receptors that can grab and kill many more cancer cells. With this grant, scientists will learn exactly how to get the gene into Natural Killer cells and grow more of them to give a patient’s immune system additional strength to fight cancer.

These engineered Natural Killer cells can fight a variety of cancers.  Right now, for example, researchers are studying how they can help ovarian cancer patients. Over 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, and there is currently a lack of effective therapeutic treatments for the disease. Natural killer cells could potentially be the solution for treating ovarian cancer.

Researchers on this project work with physician researchers who deal directly with patients fighting the cancer. The University of Minnesota has an excellent scientific staff with thorough expertise in ovarian cancer. They are working together to develop a therapy that could be administered to patients.

There are many other cancers that can be treated with engineered Natural Killer cells.  Researchers are very hopeful that the cells will work well with an antibody therapy which is already used for cancers like leukemia’s lymphomas, solid tumors, head, and neck cancers.

Federal funding for biomedical research like this has been slashed over the last few years. This has a very serious impact on the pipeline of new products being developed by companies in Minnesota. This funding is extremely important so that we can have support to create new therapies and products in Minnesota and continue the state’s long history of leadership in progressive medical treatments.


Grant Awardee Biography

image of Bruce Walcheck, PhD

Dr. Bruce Walcheck has a background in immunology with an emphasis on the mechanisms that control leukocyte migration from the blood into the underlying tissue. He earned his PhD in 1994 from Montana State University in Immunology and has served as a professor at the University of Minnesota since 1997.