By Wendy Sarubbi | November 12, 2013 10:38 am

Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences Research Assistant Professor Dr. Alicja Copik has been awarded a six-figure grant from the Florida Department of Health to develop “Natural Killer” cells that may offer more effective treatments for leukemia. The “NK” cells “have the ability to recognize and kill” cells transformed by disease or cancer, she said, are becoming an increasingly popular focus in biomedical research.

Natural Killer cells are produced in the body’s immune systems, and are best known for rejecting certain illnesses and tumors. Researchers are now looking into ways to greatly multiply NK cells and use them to target cancer in patients. Several research groups are developing methods to expand NK cells, Dr. Copik said, but the current methods require “feeder cells” which are derived from tumors to stimulate the killer cells. Feeder cells pose potential risks when injected into a patient because they contain tumor-causing materials, are expensive to create, and because of the cost would not be widely available to treatment facilities nationwide.

Dr. CopikDr. Copik’s lab is exploring methods to multiply NK cells without the use of the undesirable feeder cells.  She has teamed up with Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences colleague Dr. Deborah Altomare, who specializes in development of mouse cancer models to test the effectiveness of the new method of generating NK cells to eradicate leukemia.  The $400,000 grant from Florida’s Bankhead Coley Cancer Research Program will help Drs. Copik and Altomare obtain pre-clinical data on the use of the new NK cells to treat leukemia in preparation for possible clinical trials. In the future, the natural killer cells could be used to treat other diseases. “Research shows NK cells are also effective at killing multiple myeloma, ovarian cancer and some neurological malignancies,” Dr. Copik said.

The researcher said the opportunity to develop more effective cancer treatments is exciting to anyone who has battled cancer or watched a love one deal with the disease.  “For many of us it’s almost personal,” she said. “The traditional methods like chemotherapy have limitations. I focus my research on immunotherapy because it offers ways to prevent relapse and, therefore a cancer- free recovery.”

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