Can Natural Killer Cells Wipe Out Childhood Cancer?

Like everyone in his field, University of Wisconsin pediatric oncologist Ken De Santes, MD, yearns for the day when every child diagnosed with cancer will be cured. Although tremendous strides in curing childhood cancer have been made over the past 40 years, far too many children still die of their disease.


"About 80 percent of children diagnosed with cancer today are cured - a far higher cure rate than a generation ago - but this still means that one in five of our patients are incurable," Dr. De Santes says. "In our view, 'children' and 'cancer' are two words that do not belong together, so we are committed to clinical research as the key to curing every child battling cancer."


Accordingly, De Santes has begun to study whether an experimental treatment relying on "natural killer" cells can more effectively destroy cancer cells in children with leukemia or solid tumors, who have failed conventional therapies. Dr. De Santes is also a member of the UW Carbone Cancer Center and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.


"What we want to find out is whether the natural killer, or NK, cells from a stem-cell transplant donor are able to seek out the tumor and kill it," De Santes says. "The concept behind a 'standard' bone marrow transplant is that the immune system of the donor will help eradicate cancer cells in the patient that have become resistant to chemotherapy and radiation. We are taking the approach one step further by isolating additional NK cells from the donor and infusing these into the patient post-transplant. We believe these NK cells may be able to mediate a potent anti-tumor reaction."


So far, four patients have been enrolled on the study, but it is too early to know if the NK cells are showing a clear anti-tumor effect.


"In the initial phase of this study, we are focusing primarily on feasibility," De Santes says. "We are hoping to enroll about a dozen patients in this early phase. If things appear encouraging and we see signs of an anti-cancer effect, the window will be open to expand the scope of our study by including other cancer centers around the country."


UW-Madison and American Family Children's Hospital have a prominent role in cancer treatment advances, as the first bone marrow transplant was performed at the UW in 1968. At that time, UW Hospital started using bone marrow transplants to treat childhood cancers and congenital immunodeficiency syndromes.


Funding for Dr. De Santes' research is provided by the Midwest Athletes against Childhood Cancer (MACC) Fund, the Solving Kids Cancer Foundation, Magic Waters Foundation, Miltenyi Biotec, a global biomedical firm, and Viracor, who will be monitoring patients for the development of viral infections. DeSantes says the research could provide an exciting new strategy in pediatric cancer treatment, but cost remains a major obstacle.


"Money from the MACC fund seeded this research and really got it off the ground. I am very grateful to them, and to the Solving Kid's Cancer and Magic Waters Foundations for their generous support," says DeSantes. "We are currently seeking additional funds so that the treatment can be offered to other patients who might benefit from this approach."