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Tapping the potential of natural killer cells

Jeffrey Miller, M.D., has taken his research on natural killer cells from the laboratory to clinical trials. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Woman hopes her gifts will help U researchers find better treatments for adults with leukemia

Clark Starr, Ph.D., was two months away from retiring in 1997 when he and his wife, Jane, got devastating news. Clark had myelodysplasia, a disease in which the bone marrow doesn’t make enough healthy blood cells. It can progress and become acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).

Clark’s disease progressed to AML within a year. After two rounds of chemotherapy, it became apparent that traditional treatments weren’t working. Not even two years after he was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, Clark Starr died. He was 71.

Jane Starr was frustrated that more couldn’t be done for her husband.

“They’ve accomplished so much with helping children [with cancer] … but they didn’t have any way to treat [Clark’s leukemia],” she says. “And I was really angry about that.”

So later that year, Jane Starr approached the University of Minnesota’s cancer team to find out what she could do to improve the outlook for adults with leukemia. That’s when she learned about leading-edge research Jeffrey Miller, M.D., was conducting on natural killer (NK) cells.

Miller, director of experimental therapeutics for the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, started looking into the cancer-fighting power of NK cells 20 years ago. In 1994 he and his University colleagues launched their first clinical trial of NK cell therapy in patients who had received hematopoietic cell transplants, also known as blood and marrow transplants, using their own stem cells.

“The reality of translational research is that once you take an idea like this and start testing, it takes a long time,” explains Miller, who holds the Roger L. and Lynn C. Headrick Family Chair in Cancer Therapeutics. “So, 10 years later, in 2003, we concluded that despite successfully activating NK cells in the body, the therapy wasn’t good enough to prevent clinical relapse.”

Jane Starr hopes her gifts will expedite better treatments for adults who have leukemia.

In the meantime, NK cells were found to have receptors on their surface that “turn off” when they recognize cells as “self.” Because cancerous cells are actually “self” cells gone awry, NK cells don’t always target them as the enemy. This development prompted Miller to try a different protocol using NK cells from a related partially matched donor instead of using the patient’s own cells.

In 2005 Miller and his team showed that NK cell therapy for people with AML for whom all standard therapies had failed could lead to remission of the cancer. Miller’s group treated 32 people, and 10 achieved complete remission. Based on those promising results, Miller’s group has already developed the next generation of that therapy.

“We feel good that the new therapies we brought from the lab to the clinic are helping people,” he says. “They’re not always curing people … but the only way to be one step ahead is to go back to the laboratory and understand the failures as well as the successes.”

Jane Starr has been supporting Miller’s work with annual gifts of $10,000 since December 1999, the same year her husband died. And she feels that the need to continue supporting this work — if it will expedite a cure for adults with leukemia — is as great now as it was then.

“I figure it’s money well spent,” Starr says.

To support Miller’s work or learn about more cancer research initiatives, visit www.mmf.umn.edu/cancer or contact Catherine McGlinch at 612-626-5456 or c.mcglinch@mmf.umn.edu.

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