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EU funding for killer cells that fight cancer

Graphic image of immune cells.
Researchers at Lund University, Rigshospitalet Copenhagen, Hannover Medical School and the biopharma company Amniotics will investigate how natural killer cells can be tailored for the treatment of AML, glioblastoma and pancreatic cancer. Photo: iStock.

As certain tumor cells are able to conceal themselves in the body, it often means that patients with aggressive cancers experience a recurrence of the cancer after treatment. By programming genetically modified killer immune cells to seek and destroy the hiding tumor cells and tumor stem cells, it is hoped that we can develop more effective treatment options. An international research project, with key technologies developed by Lund University in Sweden will be used to advance immunotherapies for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), glioblastoma, and pancreatic cancer. This consortium has been granted approximately 40 million SEK by EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, Horizon Europe.

Our bodies have specialized immune cells that specifically seek and destroy tumor cells in the body. These cells are called natural killer cells. However, through specific mechanisms of selection, some tumor cells including tumor stem cells evade these killer cells, and indeed the chemotherapeutic drugs, and persist in the body.  By genetically modifying the natural killer cells to increase their ability to target and destroy hiding tumor cells, the researchers propose that cancer therapies will be more effective.

Niels-Bjarne Woods is a stem cell researcher at Lund Stem Cell Center at Lund University and leads the research team that has over the last decade developed a system to produce a potentially unlimited supply of the killer immune cells that can be tailored for genetic manipulation for cancer targeting. The system produces the killer immune cells from induced pluripotent stem cells which are regarded as an ideal source of cells being able to provide an unlimited supply of cells which are conducive to the genetic manipulations they will perform.

“One of the factors we have identified for producing the natural killer cells from pluripotent stem cells is through regulating metabolism. Our cells contain mitochondria that act as a mini power station for cell function. By feeding the mitochondria, we improve how the immune cells develop from the pluripotent stem cells,” says Niels-Bjarne Woods.

Now, the research team at Lund University and its collaborative partners at Copenhagen University Hospital Denmark, Hannover Medical School in Germany, and the biopharmaceutical company Amniotics AB Lund, have received a large grant from the European Innovation Counsel to develop this technology platform. The researchers will jointly investigate how killer cells can be tailored for the treatment of AML (acute myeloid leukaemia), glioblastoma (brain tumor) and pancreatic cancer. These are all aggressive types of cancer with a very poor prognosis.

“The idea is not to replace existing cancer therapies, at least not yet, but rather to supplement these treatments with an effective “power clean-up” of the remaining tumor cells including tumor stem cells that are difficult to remove and which lead to the recurrence of the disease. We have a panel of innovative technologies for how to achieve this, including one’s under development,” concludes Niels-Bjarne Woods.

A possible treatment modality would be to transplant the specialized killer cells into cancer patients after their standard chemotherapy treatment but prior to a cancer relapse. This would ensure the higher ratio of effector killer cells per residual cancer cell to maximize the likelihood of permanent cancer ablation.   

Portrait of Niels Bjarne Woods. Photo by Åsa Hansdotter

Niels-Bjarne Wood

Associate Professor in Molecular Medicine and Gene Therapy and cofounder of Amniotics AB. Wood's research is focused on developing new ways to create blood stem cells for transplants in blood and cancer diseases. Photo: Åsa Hansdotter

Profile in Lund University research portal

Hematopoietic Stem Cell Development Laboratory