Global Technology - October 2019

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In experiments with mice, UCLA researchers have shown they can harness the power of invariant natural killer T cells (or INKT) to attack tumor cells and treat cancer.  The new method, described recently in the journal Cell Stem Cell, suppressed the growth of multiple types of human tumors that had been transplanted into the animals.

What’s really exciting is that doctors can give this treatment just once and it increases the number of invariant natural killer T cells to levels that can fight cancer for a lifetime.

Scientists have hypothesized that invariant natural killer T cells could be a useful weapon against cancer because it has been shown that they are capable of targeting many types of cancer at once — a difference from most immune cells, which recognize and attack only one particular type of cancer cell at a time.  But for most people, iNKT cells represent less than one-tenth of 1 percent of blood cells.

Previous clinical studies had shown that cancer patients with naturally higher levels of iNKT cells generally lived longer than those with lower levels of the cells.

INKT cells are very powerful cells but they’re naturally present in such small numbers in the human blood that they usually can’t make a therapeutic difference.

The researchers’ goal was to create a therapy that would permanently boost the body’s ability to naturally produce more iNKT cells.  They started with hematopoietic stem cells found in the bone marrow that can duplicate themselves and can become all types of blood and immune cells, including iNKT cells.  The researchers genetically engineered the stem cells so that they were programmed to develop into iNKT cells.

They tested the resulting cells, called hematopoietic stem cell-engineered invariant natural killer T cells, (or HSC-iNKT cells), on mice with both human bone marrow and human cancers and studied what happened to the mice’s immune systems, the cancers, and the HSC-iNKT cells after they had integrated into the bone marrow.

They found that the stem cells differentiated normally into iNKT cells and continued to produce iNKT cells for the rest of the animals’ lives, which was generally about a year.

One advantage of this approach is that it’s...

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