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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Natural killer cell immunotherapy for a better outlook for pancreatic cancer patients


Pancreatic cancer is the 7th leading cause of cancer-related death worldwide, with more than 465.000 deaths reported in 2020 (WHO), with patients often succumbing to the aggressive cancer within a year of diagnosis. Researchers are working on the development of new treatments for Pancreatic Ductal Adeno Carcinoma (PDAC), the most frequent type of pancreatic cancer.

Unfortunately, patients diagnosed with PDAC show a dramatic death rate, as over 80% of PDAC-related deaths occur within the first year of diagnosis.

The number of people diagnosed with and dying from Pancreatic Ductal Adeno Carcinoma (PDAC) is expected increase two-fold within the next 10 years, due to the increase of obesity, type 2 diabetes and unhealthy lifestyle habits in industrialised countries.

Using the immune system to fight cancer

Immunotherapies are revolutionising the field of cancer treatment: By stimulating the patient’s own immune system to fight against tumours, researchers can develop novel therapies that overcome the limitations of current treatments.

In PDAC, many approaches have been tested in vitro – on cells in the lab – and in vivo – in mice – such as antibodies, immune checkpoint inhibitors, immune stimulators or cancer vaccines.

These approaches have shown very promising results in preclinical studies. Indeed, some compounds could trigger pancreatic cell death in vitro, and increased survival rates in mouse models of PDAC. These great advances initiated many clinical studies, where the molecules are tested in humans.
Camille Rolin Biologist and PhD student at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH)

Pancreatic cancer not responding to current immunotherapies

Still, current immunotherapeutic approaches fail to show sufficient efficacy regarding patient survival in human studies. The main challenge remaining to make this a viable treatment option is the development of a safe and efficient immunotherapy treatment that could significantly increase the survival rate of PDAC patients.

One of the main reasons this is not yet the case is the tumour microenvironment, which in this type of pancreatic cancer is particularly dense and hostile to immune responses: It is not only difficult to access for immune cells, but also produces molecules that exhaust these cells, rendering the action of current immunotherapies inefficient.

Stimulating natural killer cells to fight PDAC

“The research lead in the scope of my PhD project aims at developing new immunotherapeutic molecules for the treatment of PDAC. Mainly, this research targets specific immune cells, called Natural Killer (NK) cells, to fight against the tumour.”
The immunotherapeutic molecules developed in this project act by two means: Firstly, by stimulating NK cells in order to overcome the exhaustion due to the hostile tumour environment, and secondly by bringing closer the NK cells and the cancer cells for increased tumour cell killing. By using this approach, we hope to “boost” the immune system of PDAC patients to fight against the tumour, which could ultimately increase the survival rate.
Camille Rolin Biologist and PhD student at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH)

The researchers have already been able to show that our the new molecules developed could activate NK cells from healthy individuals, and that these activated NK cells were more cytotoxic towards pancreatic cell lines, showing promise for this as an avenue for an improved life expectancy for PDAC patients.

Camille Rolin is a PhD student in the FNR PRIDE Doctoral Training Unit (DTU) i2TRON. She is based at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) in the HIV Clinical and Translational Research Group, led by Dr Carole Devaux.

Camille with her research group
Photos by Camille Rolin


u003ch4u003eDescribing her research in one sentenceu003c/h4u003ernu003cemu003e“Development of immunotherapy stimulating Natural Killer cells for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.”u003c/emu003ernu003ch4u003eWhy she chose this path and projectu003c/h4u003ernu003cemu003e“I am truly inspired and passionate by the translational aspect of human biology research. Therefore, it was crucial to me to work on a project that really impacts the patient. This is why I joined this doctoral training unit and research institute, as their main objective is also to bridge the gap between research and clinics.”u003c/emu003ernu003ch4u003eWhat she loves about scienceu003c/h4u003ernu003cemu003e“I love that there is always something new to discover. Moreover, as research is not always easy, every little step you take is a victory, and you learn to enjoy each one of these little milestones. Finally, it is a rewarding job, because it makes me feel like I could make a difference for patients.”u003c/emu003ernu003ch4u003eWhere she sees herself in 5 yearsu003c/h4u003ernu003cemu003e“Although it is difficult to look ahead 5 years, I believe that I will stay in research after my PhD. The spectrum of possibilities is so large, and I am interested in so many of them, that I could easily see myself working in research for still some years!”u003c/emu003ernu003ch4u003eWhy she chose Luxembourg for her researchu003c/h4u003ernu003cemu003e“I decided to do my research in Luxembourg because I was very interested in the research led in my institute, the Luxembourg Institute of Health. The different research themes were matching my interest, and they could provide me with the necessary support to achieve scientific success.”u003c/emu003e