Natural Killer Cells: Harnessing the Immune system for effective Therapy against tumors and malignancy

Christel Payseng
8 min readJan 9, 2024

The immune system is an extremely important, but complex system. It fights off various pathogens and keeps patients alive. One piece of the immune system is a group of cells called natural killer cells.

What are NK or Natural Killer Cells?

Natural Killer cells for NK exist in the blood as preactivated cytolytic lymphocytes are they are effective as antitumor effectors. It is different from T and B cells, NK effector function is not mediated by high-resolution antigen specificity but through the signaling of multiple germ-line encoded activating and inhibiting receptors.

Natural killer cell therapy, similar to CAR T-cell therapy, belongs to cellular immunotherapy. NK cells, like T-cells, are vital components of the immune system that combat infections and malignant cells. Unlike T-cells, NK cells aren’t specialized for particular antigens. They act as a versatile tool capable of recognizing and eliminating any irregular-looking cells.

NK cells can recognize and attack cancer cells, but they are not able to live long enough to multiply and wipe it out completely. This is what physicians and scientists want to find a solution for. There is a need to enhance the NK cells by treating them with immune system proteins called cytokines. So that they can respond to cancer cells enhance their stamina and live longer.

NK Cell therapy has similarities to CAR T-cell therapy. Both can enhance immune system cells so they can be used to fight cancer. The difference is that the NK cells are sourced from the donor, instead of the patient.

What are the advantages of natural killer cell therapy?

NK cells do not require or need to be genetically engineered for it to recognize cancer cells. They can be prepared in the clinical laboratory faster. Within just 24 hours they can already be infused in the patient.

NK cells can also be used as a treatment option for chemotherapy-resistant acute myeloid leukemia. It also does not cause many side effects, unlike radiation and chemotherapy.

NK Cells As the First Line of Defense

Over the years, it has been established that NK cells function as a first-in-line defense against tumor development. It is capable of discriminating between self and non-self due to an array of cell surface receptors that control their response. As the medical community realizes the value of NK-cell-based immunobiology and therapy when it comes to curing gynecologic malignancies several innovations have been introduced.

This now comes in the form of harnessing NK cell function for immunotherapy, including methods like adoptive transfer of alloreactive NK cells and blocking inhibitory signals with mAb. Promoting death ligand expression, and enhancing specificity via activation of ADCC. In addition to that, medical doctors are also adding drugs or cytokines to promote NK cell proliferation and function.

Explaining How Natural Killer Cells Work

The immune system is broken into two parts. The innate immune system or cell-mediated immune system. This is the part of the immune system that attacks any foreign invader that enters our body. The other one is what we call the acquired immune system. This part of the immune system recalls the hostile foreign invaders and is ready to kill off the same foreign invaders should it try to come back again.

Natural Killer cells are the innate immune system. Natural killer cells can bind foreign attackers or body invaders and cause them to die. It also encourages the creation of cytokines, which are responsible for fighting off foreign invaders. NK cells are a type of white blood cell.

Dim Natural Killer Cells

Also known as peripheral natural killer cells, these cells are found in the bloodstream. Identifying foreign invaders in the bloodstream is the primary goal of this natural killer cell. This type of natural killer cell generally causes cells to explode when a natural killer cell binds to it.

Bright Natural Killer Cells

There are also natural killer cells present in the uterus, bone marrow, secondary lymphoid tissue, liver, and skin. Researchers believe that this subset of natural killer cells is not as deadly as the natural killer cells found in the bloodstream.

Once the level of natural bright killer cells is depleted in your body, you are prone to illnesses. Natural killer cells are the first line of defense of the body, and if the bright killer cells cannot fight off the virus, bacteria, or malignancies, it is expected that the dim natural killer cells will be responsible for continuing the fight against the virus.

How Do Natural Killer Cells Work?

Natural killer cells play a role in defense against various pathogens and tumor formation. Researchers are still beginning to understand exactly how natural killer cells work, but it is understood that they play a vital role in the immune system. There is some level of understanding of natural killer cells and how they work in the body. Natural killer cells act around three days after an infection enters the body.

Typically, the immune system responds to infected cells by releasing cytokines, which can destroy or prompt those cells to die. Natural killer cells, however, operate uniquely. They don’t rely on cues from the immune system to attack infected cells, allowing for a quicker response to pathogens.

These cells offer an advantage when infected cells lack markers that trigger the immune response. Natural killer cells step in to eliminate these cells that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Moreover, natural killer cells possess the ability to adapt rapidly to their surroundings. They can create specific immune memories, potentially preventing future infections by the same pathogen. Their dual role in both the innate and adaptive immune systems highlights their therapeutic potential.

In cancer treatment, natural killer cells show promise. They can target specific cells with distinct surface markers, destroying cancerous cells and tumors without harming healthy tissue. Several studies underscore the potency of these cells in fighting cancer.

The Origins of Natural Killer Cells

Scientists are still unraveling the origins of natural killer (NK) cells in the body. Initially believed to originate solely in the bone marrow, current studies suggest NK cells may develop in both the thymus and the liver. Although the exact developmental pathway of NK cells remains a mystery, researchers have gained insights into their formation.

NK cells, like many other cell types, originate from stem cells. Their developmental journey involves five stages. Hematopoietic stem cells differentiate into lymphoid progenitor cells in the bone marrow, progressing into pre-NK precursors identifiable by specific markers.

During their maturation, these precursor cells acquire activating and inhibitory receptors crucial for targeting pathogens in the body. After passing through various developmental stages, NK cells reach maturity when they exhibit high cytolytic activity. At this point, they’re fully equipped to fulfill their role, defending the body against pathogens and inhibiting tumor formation.

Boosting Natural Killer Cell Count

Given the importance of NK cells, many seek ways to enhance their numbers for improved immunity and overall health. Aging is associated with reduced effectiveness of NK cells, prompting research into strategies for increasing their count.

Probiotics are one avenue explored for boosting NK cell levels. These supplements, renowned for their health benefits though not fully understood in action, might aid NK cells in enhancing immune responses. Studies involving healthy elderly subjects receiving probiotics like Bacillus coagulans have shown significant increases in NK cell activity.

Certain lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, strength training, antioxidant-rich diets, massage therapy, and more, are theorized to potentially elevate NK cell levels. While promising, there’s limited research confirming their effectiveness.

Enzymatically Modified Rice Bran is another explored supplement that seems to stimulate NK cell production and activation. Studies indicate a remarkable 84% increase in NK cell activity after supplementation, potentially bolstering defenses against pathogens, especially during flu season.

Stem cell therapy emerges as a promising avenue for augmenting NK cell counts. As NK cells originate from stem cells, supplementing the body with additional stem cells might prompt increased production of NK cells. Moreover, stem cells demonstrate potential in regulating immune responses, offering a route to curb NK cells triggering autoimmune diseases.

The evolving research on NK cells signifies a fascinating advancement in understanding the immune system. This knowledge could lead to groundbreaking therapies for conditions lacking effective treatments. Enhancing NK cell counts holds promise in fortifying the immune system against cancer and pathogens.

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She wrote the book Scripted in Heaven, I Called Myself Cassandra, and has an upcoming book When Silence is not Golden, a book about Autism Spectrum Disorder and the New Breed of Homo Sapiens.

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Christel Payseng

Writer, PR Media, Literature Hobbyists, Digital Marketer