A new partnership aims to develop novel treatments in the fight against cancer.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have teamed up with biopharmaceutical company Fate Therapeutics Inc. to develop new cancer therapies. These therapies aim to help the body launch a stronger immune response against cancer through natural killer (NK) cells — a type of white blood cell in the body’s immune system that attacks diseases. Doctors have long explored the use of NK cells in treating people with cancer, aiming to boost the number of cells the body’s immune system can use to better fight disease. Through their partnership with Fate, a San Diego-based company that uses stem cells to produce treatments for rare and life-threatening disorders, U researchers are pursuing a two-pronged research approach to developing new, more effective NK cell-based treatments.
“We’re working to together to apply what we know and come up with the best scientifically valid treatment,” said Jeff Miller, M.D., deputy director of the U’s Masonic Cancer Center. “There’s a lot of excitement over the potential these treatments could have to help people suffering from cancer.”
As part of the partnership, Fate will sponsor two separate lines of research at the U for two years, and in return, the company, working with the Office for Technology Commercialization, will receive an exclusive option to exclusively license both the background intellectual property as well as any new intellectual property developed during the course of the sponsored research. Right now, the researchers are working to gather as much data as possible to determine whether their NK cell treatments will be more effective than existing cancer therapies.
Boosting NK cells’ cancer-fighting ability
Miller is leading one side of the research effort. What separates his work from existing therapies is his effort to enhance NK cells using cytomegalovirus — a virus related to those that cause chickenpox and mononucleosis. Miller is developing a way to use the virus to pump up NK cells so that they launch more potent attacks again cancer cells. He is also researching ways to integrate “serial killing” cell behavior, where a given NK cell can attack multiple cancer cells. Serial killer cells are more effective in fighting diseases, as typical NK cells can only take down one target before being recycled by the body.
Once developed, Miller’s NK cell therapy would be used only if traditional treatments fail to completely destroy the cancer cells. For example, after chemotherapy and surgery remove most of the cancer cells, doctors could inject enhanced NK cells into the blood stream to attack and remove the remaining harmful cells. The more cancer cells these combined treatments can destroy, the less likely a person is to experience a relapse where the cancer begins to grow again.
Miller and his colleague Frank Cichocki, Ph.D., an assistant professor with the U’s Medical School, hope to begin the first clinical trials on this treatment within two years. For now, they plan to focus their research primarily on acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that is a good starting point because it tends to be resistant to other types of cancer treatment. If the treatment proves effective, he hopes the partnership with Fate will expand to address other cancers through a similar approach.
Immune cells, off-the-shelf
As Miller works to make NK cells more effective, his colleague is pursuing a second side of the research partnership with Fate, this time approaching treatment from a broader scope. Dan Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine with the U’s Medical School, is developing a process that uses a special type of stem cell to create a replenishing supply of NK cells in the lab. Doctors could use this supply to boost the number of NK cells in a person’s blood, giving their immune system more resources to attack cancer cells. Kaufman’s approach allows for stem cells to be grown indefinitely in the lab, meaning they would not need to be drawn from volunteers whose cells match the type the recipient needs. If the process is proven effective in a clinical trials, which are likely to take place in 2-4 years, Fate would be able to leverage Kaufman’s idea to produce NK cells at an industrial scale. Using its cell creation platform, creating an off-the-shelf cancer treatment that is more accessible than other, patient-specific types of medicine.
“We want to make this treatment available to benefit as many people as possible,” Kaufman said. “As an off-the-shelf treatment, these cells could be sent to and administered in a wide range of locations, helping avoid the need for people to travel long distances to one of a few specialized treatment centers.”
Kaufman’s lab is also working to engineer these lab-grown NK cells with novel receptors that allow them to better target types of cancer that are more resistant to traditional treatments.
Two avenues to cancer treatment
The U’s partnership with Fate supports two separate lines of research that will take different approaches to treating cancer, giving Fate two distinct avenues toward coming up with a new, marketable therapy. The researchers are also exploring whether it will be possible to combine the two approaches, which would allow them to take Kaufman’s accessible, off-the-shelf NK cells and modify them through Miller’s cytomegalovirus method to enhance their cancer-killing function.