Lanier's Pursuit of Immune System's Natural Killers Leads to New Treatment

By Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Public Affairs | February 17, 2011

It's unclear how many leading scientists hail from rural Joiner, Arkansas, population 540, but there is at least one: Lewis Lanier, PhD, winner of many scientific honors, including having been named by the Academic Senate as the recipient of the 54th Faculty Research Lectureship in Basic Science at UCSF.

Lanier's studies of cells of the immune system have caused textbooks to be rewritten and opened new avenues for exploring immunotherapies for a range of diseases.

Lanier, American Cancer Society Research Professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF, presented the lecture on Feb. 14 to a packed crowd in Cole Hall auditorium on the UCSF Parnassus campus, many of them young graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

"Do science because it is your passion and because you can't imagine doing anything else," Lanier advised the young researchers.

Lanier's own abiding passion is for research on the immune system.

In 1981, Lanier began studying one of the armed forces of the immune system, called "natural killer" or NK cells. Working with cell-sorting technology at Becton Dickinson Immunocytometry Systems and monoclonal antibodies made by his first postdoctoral fellow Joseph Philips, Lanier discovered a receptor that marks the cells. They soon discovered that the receptor, called CD16, allowed the cells to kill cells that had been previously targeted by IgG antibodies, leading to their being named natural killer cells.

Some immunologists didn't believe Lanier had identified an important and unique cell population. It was suggested that NK cells were merely immature lymphocytes - the already renowned T cells of the immune system. A few scientists remained reluctant to acknowledge the evidence for years. Lanier's discovery was comparable to finding out that the US Marines is an important branch of the armed forces, after the other services had long been recognized.

And in fact some cells of the immune systems and the protective antibodies that some of them make and secrete have been known for more than a century. A basic understanding of antibodies accelerated vaccine development in the mid-1900s.

But NK cells are only now being accorded a full measure of respect. And in an area when treatments based on manipulating the immune system are at last hitting their stride, it's still early day for therapies based on a new understanding of these natural killers.

Read more at Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Public Affairs