Natural therapies may kill cancer

Ellen Schmidt

University of Minnesota researchers are using white blood cells âÄî natural killers that have the potential to recognize and destroy cancerous cells âÄî to research better methods of cancer treatment. The University announced a partnership with Fate Therapeutics, a California-based biopharmaceutical company, last week to begin work on two cancer therapies that use naturally occurring cells to fight cancer, called immunotherapies. Researchers hope the new treatments will be used in clinical trials in two years. Cell-based immunotherapy takes healthy white blood cells and uses them to kill off cancerous cells in combination with chemotherapy, said Dr. Jeffrey Miller, deputy director at the UniversityâÄôs Masonic Cancer Center. Doctors would use the new cell therapies only when traditional cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, arenâÄôt successful, Miller said. âÄúWhile chemotherapy and radiation [have] really been the standard of care for decades, there are new immunotherapies that are coming out that are really driving the field,âÄù he said. The natural cell treatments allow oncologists, who specialize in cancer treatments, to kill cancerous cells without hurting healthy ones, said Dr. Edward Greeno, a University oncology professor. âÄúThe hardest thing for treating cancer is that itâÄôs not much different than the rest of the body,âÄù he said. âÄúDifferent parts of the immune system work better to target different types of cancers.âÄù Miller has taken the lead on researching one of the new immunotherapies, which uses white blood cells to attack leukemia in lab-based settings. Patients will participate in the therapy in three phases once clinical testing starts, Miller said. Researchers will begin treating patients by administering chemotherapy to kill existing cancerous cells, he said. Then, they will put natural killer cells in the blood, followed by a protein to activate the new cells. Though Miller said he has used this method of treatment in previous studies, he said itâÄôs now being studied with the goal of making a product doctors can easily administer to patients. âÄúWhat weâÄôve been really interested in working on with Fate is [whether] we can translate this very basic biologic finding into new cancer therapies,âÄù Miller said. Dr. Dan Kaufman, a professor of medicine at the University, is leading research on the partnershipâÄôs second immunotherapy study. Using white blood cells that are derived from stem cells, Kaufman is looking at how the immunotherapy could treat solid tumors. âÄúWe have shown that our cells kill leukemia cells, and that seems to be the best current target for [natural killer] cells,âÄù Kaufman said. âÄúPart of what weâÄôre doing now is to engineer the cells with specific receptors to better allow them to target solid tumors.âÄù The collaboration with Fate Therapeutics will last two years but could become long-term should the research show that natural killer cells effectively treat cancer, Miller said.