Natural killer cells as a promising tool to tackle cancer-A review of sources, methodologies, and potentials

Int Rev Immunol. 2017 Jul 4;36(4):220-232. doi: 10.1080/08830185.2017.1284209. Epub 2017 May 4.


Immune cell-based therapies are emerging as a promising tool to tackle malignancies, both solid tumors and selected hematological tumors. Vast experiences in literature have documented their safety and added survival benefits when such cell-based therapies are combined with the existing treatment options. Numerous methodologies of processing and in vitro expansion protocols of immune cells, such as the dendritic cells, natural killer (NK) cells, NKT cells, αβ T cells, so-called activated T lymphocytes, γδ T cells, cytotoxic T lymphocytes, and lymphokine-activated killer cells, have been reported for use in cell-based therapies. Among this handful of immune cells of significance, the NK cells stand apart from the rest for not only their direct cytotoxic ability against cancer cells but also their added advantage, which includes their capability of (i) action through both innate and adaptive immune mechanism, (ii) tackling viruses too, giving benefits in conditions where viral infections culminate in cancer, and (iii) destroying cancer stem cells, thereby preventing resistance to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This review thoroughly analyses the sources of such NK cells, methods for expansion, and the future potentials of taking the in vitro expanded allogeneic NK cells with good cytotoxic ability as a drug for treating cancer and/or viral infection and even as a prophylactic tool for prevention of cancer after initial remission.

Keywords: Natural killer cells; cancer treatment; immune cell therapy; in vitro expansion.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cancer Vaccines / immunology*
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy, Adoptive / methods*
  • Isoantigens / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / transplantation
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Remission Induction


  • Cancer Vaccines
  • Isoantigens