By Wendy Sarubbi | August 26, 2019 4:32 pm

College of Medicine cancer researcher Dr. Alicja Copik has received a funding boost for her research into using the body’s own immune system to fight one of medicine’s deadliest cancers.

The $800,000 grant is from the Florida Department of Health’s Esther and James King program that funds research on tobacco-related cancers and diseases. Dr. Copik has found a way to amplify the body’s Natural Killer Cells to treat certain types of leukemia. This state grant will allow her to apply her research to fight lung cancer – the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the U.S.

NK cells are a type of white blood cell that act as a first line of defense in protecting the body from enemies, such as viruses and infections. In the lab, Dr. Copik has discovered a way to make NK cells even more powerful – by stimulating them with nanoparticles that multiply them and heighten their killing ability.

“The NK cells are like the immune system’s assassins,” she said, “so in the lab we can not only increase their numbers but we make them deploy with bigger and heavier guns, to better target and kill the bad guys.”

With the grant, Dr. Copik will examine treating lung cancer with a combination of NK cells and currently approved immunotherapy drugs, which have made headlines in saving the lives of hundreds of cancer patients including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The challenge with those therapies is that they only work for a small number of people who have who have a specific molecule called PDL1 in their cancer makeup. Dr. Copik recently discovered a way to make that therapy viable to thousands by using the NK cells in a new way.

For a malignant tumor to survive, cancers place the PDL1 protein on their cells. “The molecule basically tells the body’s immune system, ‘I’m one of your own cells, so don’t eat me’,” Dr. Copik said. For patients with PDL1 on their cancers, new immunotherapy drugs use an antibody that blocks the PDL1 protection, allowing the body’s immune system to kill the cancer. These drugs have been very successful – even in stopping Stage 4, metastatic cancer and leading to long-lasting remissions– but only for patients whose tumors test positive for PDL1. Only 15 to 30 percent of patients – depending on the cancer – have PDL1 on their cancer cells.

Dr. Copik discovered that NK cells, stimulated with the nanoparticles, attack the tumor and induce it to present PDL1 – which the new immunotherapy drugs can then target. In her study, combining NK cells with the new immunotherapy drug led to improved survival rates in mice with cancer.

“So with this grant, we will be combining NK cell therapy with immunotherapy drugs – some that are already FDA approved and in use, and some that are still undergoing clinical trials and testing it in lung cancer cells,” she said.

The grant will support further testing of the combination therapy in specially engineered 3D tumors that are grown from lung cancer cells to mimic actual tumors and in other models.

Dr. Copik explained that these activated NK cells will have advantages over conventional cancer therapies. They seldom cause side effects like chemotherapy and radiation. And they don’t attack healthy cells.

If successful, this combination therapy holds great promise for lung cancer patients whose five-year survival rate is currently at 56 percent. Not counting skin cancer, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women, second only to prostate cancer in men and breast cancer for women. According to The American Cancer Society’s estimates, about 228,150 new cases of lung cancer and 142,670 deaths will be recorded in the United States in 2019. While the risk is much higher in smokers, about 30,000 Americans who died from lung cancer in 2018 had never smoked or used any other form of tobacco.

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