Published: 19-02-2014 16:49 | Updated: 19-02-2014 16:49

After 10 years of preparation - now the method is tested on patients with bone marrow cancer

Evren Alici, group leader at HERM, wants to cure cancer using natural killer cells, NK cells. Now his research group has received SEK 900 000 over three years from Cancerföreningen to conduct a study, in which their method to increase the number of NK cells will be tested on patients for the first time.

Today it´s a well-known fact that the body's own NK cells, which are a type of white blood cells, can kill cancer cells. However, NK cells are very few in the circulation, and it has not been possible to use them to treat patients. Not until now.

During the last decade Evren Alici and his research group has developed a laboratory method, Expansion of NK cells, which is able to significantly increase the number of NK cells. And the hope is now that these NK cells will function as a complementary treatment to stem cell transplantation.

- This fall, we hope to begin a Phase 1 clinical trial in patients with multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer in which an average survival is five to six years after receiving the diagnosis. These patients are treated with stem cell transplantation, and before going through the transplantation, they receive chemotherapy that knocks out parts of their own bone marrow and the cancer cells, says Evren. (Assoc. Prof. Hareth Nahi is the principal investigator of the clinical trial.) Evren further explains:

- The problem is that a number of cancer cells often survive the chemo and then cause the disease to recur. But now we will treat the patients with NK cells directly after the transplantation, and our idea is that the NK cells then will clear away remaining cancer cells and thus reduce the risk of relapse.

If the method proves successful, it can be used also in other types of cancer, for example liver cancer.

- In ten years´ time, I hope that NK cells are an accepted complementary therapy to stem cell transplantation, says Evren, and adds that Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren, the Department´s own pioneer when it comes to NK-cells, also has very exciting research going on within the field. Evren also claims he is very fortunate to be in a very strong research environment, especially with experts of the field such as Prof. Katarina Le Blanc and Prof. Petter Höglund.

- The research environment established in HERM is truly translational and covers a very large field with spear heading experts. This is naturally a great possibility for young investigators to establish, learn and grow.

Evren himself is involved in another research project about NK cells. This project is about genetic modification of NK cells and is led by Evren´s former PhD student Tolga Sütlü.

- With the help of genetic modification, we try to improve the NK cells' ability to recognize and kill tumor cells. This is a very new and exciting area of research that is growing now, says Evren.

Text: Lisa Hagsten