Researchers at the Texas Children’s Cancer Center and Center For Cell & Gene Therapy at the Baylor College of Medicine report they have been able to genetically modify human Natural Killer T (NKT) cells to recognize neuroblastoma cells and see them as dangerous entities. The genetic modification has brought about long-lasting remission and in some cases cures in mice that have aggressive human neuroblastoma. These modified NKT cells could be redirected to help fight childhood neuroblastoma.
NKT cells are specialized white blood cells (cytotoxic lymphocytes) that respond that respond to the presence of viruses and tumors and kills them. Researchers have genetically engineered these cells to react to a molecule commonly found on the surface of neuroblastoma tumors known as GD2. It is believed that this modificiation will kill tumor cells as well as reactivate local immune cells that have been fooled into ignoring or even supporting the cancer.
According to Leonid Metelitsa, professor of paediatrics and immunology at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, “Tumors often find ways to avoid the immune system or ‘switch it off’ in order to grow and survive, so any way we can switch the immune system back on and redirect it towards cancer cells would be a significant advance. By modifying these Natural Killer T cells so that they target neuroblastoma tumors and sound the alarm for the rest of the immune system we hope to have developed a new approach to treating this disease.”
Nerve cells that are left behind from infant development can develop into neuroblastomas. It is reported that around 100 children in the UK are diagnosed with this cancer yearly. Even though the number of children surviving neuroblastomas has increased from 17 percent in 1971 to 64 percent today, this disease is difficult to treat successfully.
According to Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK and chair of the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI), “We are excited to see so much research both here and internationally into badly needed new treatments for neuroblastoma patients. Cutting edge research, such as this study, together with Cancer Research UK’s newly opened trials, are making a vitally important step towards better and kinder treatments for children with neuroblastoma.”