Cancer Center gets grant for killer cells

by Jeannine Aquino

Cancer Center researchers at the University received more than $20 million in research grants from the National Cancer Institute to be distributed over the next five years.

One of the two $10 million grants will be used to continue the University’s efforts to use umbilical cord blood to generate stems cells for cancer patients. The other grant will expand on last year’s University finding on “natural killer” cells.

The grant to study natural killer cells is one of the first institute grants awarded exclusively for that research.

Natural killer cells are part of a body’s immune system and help defend the body against infection. They target tumors and protect against microbes.

Last year’s findings were the first successful demonstration that natural killer cells could be used to target and destroy cancer cells when injected into patients. Jeffrey Miller, co-leader of the Transplant Biology and Therapy Program, reported the discovery.

He cited the possibility of relapse in patients and the practice of being able to use only transplants from a relative as problems of the transplant procedure.

Part of the research on natural killer cells will look at how the cells can facilitate organ transplants between unrelated people.

“Our goal is to make transplants better. We want to make it available to everybody with cancers who need them,” Miller said. “We want to boost the body’s immune system through natural killer cells to prevent relapse.”

While Miller is the lead researcher for the natural killer cell grant, Philip McGlave, director of hematology, oncology and transplantation at the University Medical School, will focus on the stem cell part of the research. He, along with three teams of researchers, will concentrate on understanding the biology of human stem cells and transplanting them into patients for treatment of leukemia and lymphoma.

Mark Paller, assistant vice president for research, said he’s thrilled their principal investigator is getting major funding.

“It’s very difficult to get funding from the National Cancer Institute,” he said. “This is further evidence that the Cancer Center is doing astounding research.”