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Natural Killer Cells and the Immunology-based Progression of Cancer

Research Profile: Gundula Min-Oo, Lanier Lab

By Anna Pieper    |   cancer.ucsf.edu | March 15, 2013

Natural Killer Cells and the Immunology-based Progression of Cancer

Gundula Min-Oo, PhD

As an undergrad and then a graduate student studying infectious disease and genetics, post-doctoral researcher Gundula Min-Oo, PhD, never imagined she'd find herself in the field of cancer research. UC San Francisco had other plans. Currently a member of the laboratory of Lewis Lanier, PhD, Min-Oo has been dedicating her time to a unique project in the emerging field of cancer immunology that investigates natural killer cells and their role in the immune system and the progression of cancer.

Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of white blood cell in the innate immune system that provides protection against microbial pathogens and tumors. In addition to surveying the body for cancer and infectious diseases, NK cells also crucially recruit other important killer cells that will help contain and kill an infection or tumor. While NK cells are essential for a fully functioning immune system, it is possible—although rare—to live without them.

At the center of Min-Oo's research are two patients who fit this description. Both were found to have NK cell deficiencies, an unusual discovery since individuals without NK cells typically don't make it past childhood. Because cancer risk increases with age, however, survival into adulthood for these two patients means a newfound susceptibility to the development of tumors in addition to the high risk of infection that they have dealt with their entire lives. For these individuals, a vicious downward cycle is likely to ensue: no NK cells to kill virally-infected cells means the spread of viruses, which can in turn induce certain cancers that will similarly grow unchecked without functioning NK cells to stop them.

This progression was observed soon after research began in one of the two patients studied; while the patient was initially cancer-free, she quickly contracted a viral infection that induced cervical carcinoma. And without NK cells and a fully functioning immune system, the patient's cancer was less responsive to radiation and other standard therapies typically used for her disease.

"We can learn so much more if we start making discoveries in humans as opposed to a fly or a mouse where it takes so much longer to reach the clinic."

While the clinical aspects of Min-Oo's work are more focused on immune deficiency patients than on cancer patients without immune deficiency, the implications of her work are far-reaching. If Min-Oo and her team can understand the biology of NK deficiency, they can better understand the link between the immune system and the progression of cancer—a relatively new connection that holds great potential for the advancement of the cancer research field as a whole. Min-Oo's research could also lead to ways to improve the immune systems of patients with immunological deficiencies so that they can begin to fight cancer on their own, making treatment with the normal standard of care possible where previously it was not.

Fortunately, Min-Oo believes UCSF's superior cross-disciplinary platforms and programs ensure rapid translation of lab results into clinical practice. The university's unique hospital affiliation and close links between research labs and the physicians who treat patients guarantees patients the most cutting-edge care that can be provided. “We can learn so much more if we start making discoveries in humans as opposed to a fly or a mouse where it takes so much longer to reach the clinic,” says Min-Oo. “The greatest strength about UCSF is not only its collaborative core of great investigators but it is top-notch in both the research and the clinical areas.”