New research collaboration will explore ‘natural killer cell’ cancer therapies

9 Jun 2021

From left: Dr David Finlay, TCD; Prof Michael O’Dwyer, ONK Therapeutics; and Lawrence Lee, Enterprise Ireland. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin will team up with Galway-based ONK Therapeutics to explore the metabolic reprogramming and engineering of natural killer cells.

A collaborative Irish research project has been awarded a grant to explore improved cancer therapies.

Galway-based ONK Therapeutics will team up with researchers in Trinity College Dublin to optimise the metabolism and engineering of natural killer (NK) cells.

NK cells play an important role in our defence against cancer, as they can directly kill tumour cells.

Once activated, NK cells increase their uptake of cellular fuel, which is converted into energy by a biochemical engine that powers the all-important cancer-killing cells.

The project will be led by Dr David Finlay who, along with his team, published a paper on how this engine functions in 2017.

He will work with ONK Therapeutics, a cell therapy company founded in 2015 by Prof Michael O’Dwyer of NUI Galway.

The company focuses on developing next-generation ‘off-the-shelf’, dual-targeted NK cell therapies targeting solid and haematological cancers.

The two-year project has been awarded an Enterprise Ireland Innovation Partnership Programme grant, which will cover 80pc of the €373,295 project costs. ONK Therapeutics will provide the remaining 20pc of the financing.

Trinity College Dublin will be recruiting two additional postdoctoral scientists into Finlay’s group over the two years of the project.

‘A completely novel approach’

Finlay said manipulating NK cell metabolism to enhance the anti-cancer function is only possible based on the discoveries made over the past five years.

“Our goal is to discover new targets within NK cells to be edited through CRISPR deletion or overexpression strategies. Detailed evaluation of the resistance of these cells to the adverse environments generated by tumours should support the development of enhanced NK cell therapies,” he said.

“It is an innovative approach to developing improved cellular therapies to treat cancer, in particular solid tumours.”

O’Dwyer said working with Finlay and his team means ONK Therapeutics will be collaborating with a “pioneering expert” in the field of NK immunometabolism.

“We are taking a completely novel approach by addressing NK cell metabolism from the inside out, fundamentally engineering NK cells to better treat cancer by increasing their resistance to the adverse metabolic conditions generated by tumours,” he added.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic