Building on the promise of emerging therapies to deploy the body’s “natural killer” immune cells to fight cancer, researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) Rogel Cancer Center and U-M College of Engineering have gone one step further. They’ve developed what is believed to be the first systematic way to capture natural killer cells and get them to release cancer-killing exosomes. These nano-scale exosomes are thousands of times smaller than natural killer (NK) cells and thus better able to penetrate cancer cells’ defenses. A proof-of-concept study in blood samples from five patients with non-small cell lung cancer demonstrated that the approach was able to capture natural killer cells on a microfluidic chip and use them to release NK exosomes. The multidisciplinary team, which included U-M engineers and oncologists, further demonstrated that the exosomes could effectively kill circulating tumor cells in cell cultures, according to findings published online on January 28, 2021 in Advanced Science. The open-access article is titled “On‐Chip Biogenesis of Circulating NK Cell‐Derived Exosomes in Non‐Small Cell Lung Cancer Exhibits Antitumoral Activity.” “Exosomes are small sacs, of proteins and/or other molecules, that are naturally released by almost every type of cell in the body,” says Yoon-Tae Kang, PhD, a Research Fellow in Chemical Engineering at U-M and co-lead author of the study. “In this case, we wanted to expand our understanding of NK exosomes and try to harness their cancer-killing potential.” Compared to NK cells, NK exosomes are more stable and easier to modify for therapeutic purposes, Dr. Kang says. The system also has potential to help diagnose and monitor cancer, the study notes. Harnessing the power of NK cells has long presented a tantalizing possibility for researchers.
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