Often-overlooked Natural Killer cells may be key to cancer immunotherapy

VIDEO: Natural Killer cells, shown in green, are attacking a mouse tumor. These often-overlooked cells may be key to cancer immunotherapy. Blood vessels are shown in blue. view more 

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Credit: Dr. Michele Ardolino and Dr. Brian Weist

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are revolutionizing the treatment of cancer, but new research challenges the central dogma of how these drugs work. This research, published in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Investigation, shows for the first time that often-overlooked immune cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells play a crucial role in responding to checkpoint inhibitors.

“Checkpoint inhibitors work by waking up the body’s own immune system and unleashing an immune attack on cancer cells,” explained co-senior author Dr. Michele Ardolino, a scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa. “For many years, everyone assumed that checkpoint inhibitors targeted immune cells called T cells. But our research shows that they also target Natural Killer cells and these cells play a key role in the how this treatment works.”

Dr. Ardolino led the study together with Dr. David Raulet, professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

“In the cancer immunotherapy field there has been a singular focus on mobilizing anti-tumor T


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