Israeli researchers discover how to disable Natural Killer cancer cells

These membrane proteins could provide a target for new treatments.

July 30, 2019 16:48
2 minute read.
Cancer Research

A scientist prepares protein samples for analysis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, Britain, July 15, 2013. (photo credit: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS)

 The future of cancer treatments rests partially on the shoulders of Natural Killer cells, according to a recent study conducted by Israeli Professor Angel Porgador, of the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben-Gurion University, and the National Institute of Biotechnology in the Negev (NIBN). 

The study, published in July in the Cancer Immunology Research Journal, described Porgador’s discovery: a protein in the cell membrane of cancers that inhibits the body’s immune system, allowing the cancer to spread undisturbed.
This membrane protein protects the cancers by disabling Natural Killer cells (NKs), white blood cells that attack tumors and viruses. While such proteins usually live in the nucleus and cytoplasms, they were recently found in cell membranes. 

 According to Porgador, these membrane proteins could provide a target for new treatments. “This is the real proof that a very important protein in the cancer life, or in the proliferating cell life, has a version that goes in the membrane,” he said, “and this protein could be a target.

Porgador and his team used mouse cells to develop an antidote to the inhibiting proteins, in the form of an antibody. Now they are in the process of turning the mouse antibody into one that will work on human cells. Their goal? A fully FDA-approved form of cancer therapy that will be administered intravenously or intramuscularly to patients.

The ongoing research and development is led by Pink Bio-pharma, a company established by biotech incubator FutuRx. Funded by the Israel Innovation Authorities, FutuRx scouts out and licenses academic research projects that could result in practical medical treatments.

After evaluating Porgador’s research, FutuRx decided to take it on. “When NIBN approached the FutuRx Incubator and offered them this project, this project was tested, checked by the scientific advisory board of the FutuRX incubator,” said Pink Bio-pharma CEO, Dr. Rachel Eren. 

“The scientific advisory board found a lot of merit in it and suggested it to the incubator to start a company that could take this project and commercialize it.”

Osnat Ohne, CEO of the NIBN, said that the establishment of Pink Bio-pharma showed the goals of NIBN as a research institution.

“Pink Bio-pharma is a great example of fulfilling our mission of final commercialization,” Ohne said. “The professional team of FutuRx, identified both scientific rationale and applied research maturity and decided to establish a company based on our technology. We are very satisfied that professional accelerator such as FutuRx will lead the development of this promising project further.”

According to Eren, Porgador’s research has offered a valuable new method for treating cancer because of its focus on the Natural Killer cells. 

“This [receptor] that Professor Porgador has researched is a very novel concept, because it’s not on T cells but on Natural Killer cells,” Eren explained. 

T cells in the immune system need a special activation in order to fight invaders, whereas the Natural Killers do not. 

“So this is a very promising therapeutic approach,” Eren said.

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