30 March 2020

Using ‘embryonic’ immune cells in immunotherapy treatment for cancer may lead to improved outcomes, according to a new study.

One option being explored for cancer immunotherapy is to transplant human immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells into patients. Research has shown that NK cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) are more potent than ones derived from adult donors. Dr Christopher Sturgeon and colleagues at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, USA, sought to explain why this was the case.

The team explored whether hPSC-derived NK cells, which follow a developmental pathway similar to embryonic blood development, behave differently to adult NK cells. The study was carried out using both mice and human cells. They found that embryonic NK cells in mice, and hPSC-derived NK cells in vitro, are better at releasing specific anti-tumour chemicals than more mature cells derived during adult haematopoiesis.

The researchers say that their finding highlights the possibility of an immunotherapy developed from hPSCs. These could use existing supplies of hPSCs, rather than matched donors. This could mean that the necessary cells could be manufactured quickly and easily for each patient, the team adds.

Dr Sturgeon said: “We are trying to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy for more patients. This special source of natural killer cells has the potential to fill some of the gaps remaining with adult natural killer cell therapy.

“There is early evidence that they are more consistent in their effectiveness, and we would not need to process cells from a donor or the patient. They could be manufactured from existing cell supplies following the strict federal guidelines for good manufacturing practices.

“The characteristics of these cells let us envision a supply of them ready to pull off the shelf whenever a patient needs them. Now that we know how to manufacture them and how they work, it opens the door for more trials and for improving upon their function."

Full details were published recently in the journal Developmental Cell.

Source: Dege C, Fegan KH, Creamer JP, Berrien-Elliott MM, Luff SA, Kim D, Wagner JA, Kingsley PD, McGrath KE, Fehniger TA, Palis J, Sturgeon CM (2020) “Potently cytotoxic natural killer cells initially emerge from erythro-myeloid progenitors during mammalian development”, Developmental Cell, doi:  10.1016/j.devcel.2020.02.016


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