“Harnessing the Power of Natural Killer Cells: A Breakthrough Approach in Pancreatic Cancer Treatment”

Christel Payseng
6 min readApr 9, 2024

Pancreatic cancer is a serious illness known for its rapid spread and challenging treatment. Despite advancements, outcomes for patients with advanced stages are often not favorable. However, there’s hope on the horizon thanks to progress in immunotherapy, particularly involving natural killer (NK) cells.

NK cells are special immune cells that play a vital role in our body’s defense system. They can target and eliminate cancerous or infected cells without needing prior exposure to specific triggers.

This ability makes them important for keeping an eye on abnormal cells, including those in pancreatic cancer.

While there’s still much to uncover about NK cells in pancreatic cancer, there’s growing optimism about their potential in immunotherapy.

Natural Killer (NK) cells are gaining more and more interest as a highly attractive target for cancer immunotherapies, both as pharmaceutical target and for cell therapies.

Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of immune cell that were discovered over 40 years ago. They originate from bone marrow lymphoid stem cells and develop in the bone marrow or thymus. NK cells are found mainly in the peripheral blood and spleen, making up 10–20% of all lymphocytes in the blood. Unlike T and B lymphocytes, NK cells don’t have specific antigen-recognition receptors.

One of the unique features of NK cells is that they can identify and destroy virus-infected or cancerous cells without needing prior exposure to specific antigens or being restricted by major histocompatibility complexes. This ability makes them important for immune surveillance.

NK cells not only directly kill target cells but also stimulate the immune system by producing various cytokines. They have surface receptors that regulate their activity. When NK cells encounter target cells, they can release substances like perforin and granzymes to destroy them. They can also induce apoptosis, a form of programmed cell death, through different pathways.

Additionally, activated NK cells can produce cytokines such as TNF-α and IFN-γ, which have antibacterial and antitumor effects. These cytokines can directly affect target cells or activate other immune cells to attack them.

Level & Effectiveness of NK cells in Pancreatic Cancer

The level and effectiveness of natural killer (NK) cells in the body are closely linked to pancreatic cancer. Researchers have discovered that as pancreatic cancer progresses, the activity of NK cells tends to decrease, leading to poorer outcomes for patients.

In a study by Lee and colleagues, they observed that the function of NK cells decreased as pancreatic cancer advanced, which was associated with worse clinical results. Another study by Marcon et al. looked at the characteristics and function of NK cells in both the blood and tumor tissues of pancreatic cancer patients.

They found that although the quantity of NK cells in the blood remained normal, these cells displayed specific characteristics indicating reduced ability to kill cancer cells and produce certain immune molecules.

Interestingly, Masuyama et al. experimented with expanding NK cells in a lab setting using specific antibodies. They found that increasing the number of NK cells boosted their ability to kill cancer cells, leading to improved outcomes in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer.

There was even a case where a pancreatic cancer patient experienced prolonged survival and shrinkage of metastatic lesions after receiving NK cell therapy.

Similarly, in another study by Lin et al., they expanded NK cells in the lab using certain compounds and observed a decrease in both primary and metastatic pancreatic cancer lesions in a mouse model after treatment.

This review article highlights the progress made in using NK cells to treat pancreatic cancer, aiming to shed light on new approaches for enhancing the effectiveness of pancreatic cancer therapy.

Clinical infusion of NK cells in pancreatic cancer

Using NK cells or their predecessors, lymphokine-activated killer cells, as a treatment for tumors that have spread to other parts of the body is gaining popularity. In one study, researchers modified a cell line called NK-92 to target a protein called PD-L1 found on cancer cells. They also added certain molecules to enhance the cell’s effectiveness. Lab tests showed that these modified NK-92 cells could kill various types of tumor cells.

This promising data led to a phase I clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of these modified NK cells in people with advanced solid cancers. The trial is ongoing, and early results are encouraging. Now, researchers are planning a phase II trial to see if combining these modified NK cells with other treatments can improve outcomes for people specifically diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Another study presented a case of a patient with advanced pancreatic cancer who received a combination of cell-based immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and targeted agents. The patient showed a significant decrease in tumor markers and regression of lesions after treatment.

These studies highlight the potential of using NK cells and other immune-based therapies to treat advanced pancreatic cancer, offering hope for improved outcomes for patients.


NK cells play a crucial role in pancreatic cancer immunotherapy by inhibiting tumor growth through various mechanisms. These include increasing the expression of receptors and ligands, promoting the release of cytokines related to NK cells, and utilizing multifunctional antibody-mediated activation. New strategies aim to enhance NK cell activity through cytokine secretion, immune drug stimulation, and regulating signals that activate or inhibit NK cells.

Although NK cell-based therapies hold promise for pancreatic cancer treatment, several challenges remain. Safety concerns and potential complications need further investigation. Additionally, achieving effective outcomes solely with single-target approaches is challenging, highlighting the need for multidisciplinary collaboration to identify specific targets for comprehensive treatment.

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Christel Payseng

Writer, PR Media, Literature Hobbyists, Digital Marketer