Reprogramming natural killer cells for cancer therapy

Mol Ther. 2024 Jan 24:S1525-0016(24)00027-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ymthe.2024.01.027. Online ahead of print.


The last decade has seen rapid development in the field of cellular immunotherapy, particularly in regard to chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-modified T cells. However, challenges, such as severe treatment-related toxicities and inconsistent quality of autologous products, have hindered the broader use of CAR-T cell therapy, highlighting the need to explore alternative immune cells for cancer targeting. In this regard, natural killer (NK) cells have been extensively studied in cellular immunotherapy and were found to exert cytotoxic effects without being restricted by human leukocyte antigen and have a lower risk of causing graft-versus-host disease; making them favorable for the development of readily available "off-the-shelf" products. Clinical trials utilizing unedited NK cells or reprogrammed NK cells have shown early signs of their effectiveness against tumors. However, limitations, including limited in vivo persistence and expansion potential, remained. To enhance the antitumor function of NK cells, advanced gene-editing technologies and combination approaches have been explored. In this review, we summarize current clinical trials of antitumor NK cell therapy, provide an overview of innovative strategies for reprogramming NK cells, which include improvements in persistence, cytotoxicity, trafficking and the ability to counteract the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment, and also discuss some potential combination therapies.

Keywords: CAR; NK cells; cancer; genetic engineering; immunotherapy.

Publication types

  • Review