Scientists uncover engine that drives ‘Natural Killer’ cells to fight cancer

18 Sep 2017

Image: crystal light/Shutterstock

Researchers from TCD have made a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer with the discovery of what makes killer cells tick.

As part of the latest research into science’s understanding of how the body fights cancer, a team of scientists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has unearthed a massive discovery into ‘Natural Killer’ (NK) cells.

In a paper published to the journal Nature Immunology, Dr David Finlay and his team discovered how the engine that powers these cancer-killing cells functions.

NK cells are immune cells that 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 tumour-killing machinery.

Unlike other immune cells, NK cells use a very different engine configuration due to a protein switch called SREPB.

When the researchers used cholesterol-like molecules called oxysterols with the switch, the NK cells failed to kill the tumour cells.

Natural Killer engine

Infographic showing the ‘engine’ in action. Image: TCD

This discovery will be crucial to our understanding of how researchers can make NK cells more effective in our efforts to fight cancer, now and in the future.

“Our findings reveal a previously unknown way by which the cancer-killing functions of Natural Killer cells can be disrupted,” said Finlay on his team’s results.

Finlay was awarded €647,000 in 2014 to fund research into how NK cells are used by the body to fight cancer, and will now look to see whether a connection might be found between its effectiveness and blood cholesterol levels.

“The next step is to investigate whether the functions of NK cells are indeed impaired in individuals with high cholesterol levels, and whether cholesterol-lowering interventions can restore NK cell function in these individuals,” Finlay added.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic