Story by: David Steen Martin; Reviewed by Don A. Stevens, M.D. on December 11, 2023
The body has cells that naturally attack cancer cells and other diseased and infected cells. These natural killer (NK) cells are part of the immune system’s front line of defense.
NK cells are a type of white blood cell that travels in your bloodstream, patrolling the body, scanning cells to see if they are healthy or harmful. When the NK cell finds a harmful cell, it destroys it.
“What makes these natural killer cells so special is they do not need to be exposed to the harmful cells ahead of time,” said Don A. Stevens, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist, co-founder of Norton Cancer Institute and director of its hematologic cancer program. “Typically, the immune system needs to see something first in order to recognize it as harmful later on.”
While NK cells also can attack viruses, parasites and microscopic pathogens, it is their cancer-fighting ability that has caught the attention of researchers at medical centers around the world, including Norton Cancer Institute.
Norton Cancer Institute is one of six cancer centers in the United States now investigating whether these special cells can be used to fight a type of leukemia after other treatments have failed.
Using NK cells as a cancer treatment involves harvesting umbilical cord blood or stem cells from healthy individuals. Cancer patients then receive a transfusion of NK cells, which have been specially reprogrammed to enhance their cancer-fighting ability.
Same-day appointments for new patients, nine outpatient centers and multiple infusion centers are some of the reasons more people choose Norton Cancer Institute than any other provider in the area.
This type of treatment that harnesses the immune system to fight cancer is called immunotherapy.
Tumor cells may have developed ways to evade a cancer patient’s own NK cells, but they are less prepared against specially reprogrammed NK cells from healthy donors.
Other types of white blood cells that fight diseased and infected cells, called T cells and B cells, need to recognize a previous exposure. Vaccines work by exposing these cells to potentially dangerous viruses or bacteria that have been rendered safe. NK cells are unique because they give the immune system “ready-to-kill” machinery.
To determine which cells are normal, healthy cells and which ones are unhealthy or invading cells, NK cells check the surface of neighboring cells for a chemical marker, a receptor called MHC 1. This “friend or foe” signal lets the NK cell know whether to leave the cell alone or attack it.
When it attacks another cell, an NK cell releases toxic chemicals that cause the cell walls of the harmful cells to rupture. NK cells are particularly effective because they have the ability to kill multiple adjacent cells rapidly. And because they work at a cellular level, NK cells are able target cancer cells without killing or damaging nearby cells.
In addition to their cancer-cell-killing ability, NK cells also communicate with other cells to boost the body’s immune response.
The scientific community is still learning about NK cells, which are thought to develop and mature in bone marrow, the tonsils, spleen and lymph nodes. In addition to traveling in the bloodstream, they also exist in lymph tissue and are located in organs such as your liver and lungs.
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