Stories of progress, inspiration, and information in overcoming osteosarcoma.

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Recruiting Natural Killer Cells to Fight Osteosarcoma

OSI Grant Winner Daniel Vallera, PhD, explains a promising experimental osteosarcoma treatment intended to multiply the immune system’s “first responders” to combat osteosarcoma in dogs and humans.

Each year, the Osteosarcoma Institute (OSI) funds promising research from osteosarcoma investigators around the world in hopes of discovering novel osteosarcoma treatment options and an eventual cure.

Daniel Vallera, PhD

Daniel Vallera, PhD

Daniel Vallera, PhD, is a professor of therapeutic radiology-radiation oncology at the University of Minnesota and the recipient of one of the OSI’s 2021 grants. Dr. Vallera and colleagues have developed an experimental treatment that multiplies naturally occurring immune cells, called natural killer (NK) cells, to better fight osteosarcoma.

In January 2023, Dr. Vallera’s research was used to begin treating dogs with osteosarcoma. As researchers learn more about the potential of NK cell therapy, Dr. Vallera is optimistic about an eventual human osteosarcoma clinical trial as well.

The Frontline spoke with Dr. Vallera to understand this experimental therapy.

NK Cells: The Body’s First Responders

NK cells are part of the body’s innate immune system, explains Dr. Vallera. “Over 100 malignant cells arise in your body every day. It is up to the NK cells to patrol and eliminate them.”

Many cancer drugs, such as CAR T-cells or bi-specific antibodies that bolster T-cells, are aimed at harnessing the body’s adaptive immune system, which has a kind of memory. When the adaptive immune system encounters a cancer for a second time, it recognizes the cancer and is activated quickly.

In contrast, NK cells do not possess such a memory, but they are the first part of the immune system to respond to malignant cells.

A Promising Crossover Treatment

Researchers are still exploring the untapped potential that NK cells may have in fighting osteosarcoma. Drugs that multiply NK cells have already shown promise in treating some forms of blood cancer.

Dr. Vallera’s position at the University of Minnesota has allowed him to closely collaborate with researchers at University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Medical Center such as Jessica Lawrence, DVM, who are working to combat osteosarcoma in dogs.

“If we can harness these new drugs to cause NK cells to multiply and kill cancer cells more efficiently, osteosarcoma patients will have a better chance of survival.” — Daniel Vallera, PhD

“If we can harness these new drugs to cause NK cells to multiply and kill cancer cells more efficiently, we’re going to give osteosarcoma patients a better chance of survival,” says Dr. Vallera. “Our canine friends are a tremendously useful model for studying this because osteosarcoma in dogs is very similar to the disease in humans. And we have a chance to save dogs too.”

Funding Makes Breakthroughs Possible

Dr. Vallera says that without the OSI, his NK drug therapy research would not have progressed as quickly as it has. A canine clinical trial is already approved, and there is a potential for the drug to be ready for human trials as early as the end of 2023.

“It is invaluable to have this type of funding,” he adds. “The immune system has stepped to the forefront of cancer therapy research. Both commercial and academic forces are working together to look at novel ways to do this. It is truly an exciting time.”

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