New technique shows how 'cancer-fighting' white blood cells kill diseased tissue

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Oxford have used a super-resolution microscope to capture how certain white blood cells - called natural killer (NK) cells - kill diseased tissue in greater detail than ever before.

The study could help in the development of medical treatments that target certain diseases, including tumours, the researchers said. NK cells have been previously shown to be able to kill cancer cells.

The team used advanced microscope techniques to see the inner workings of NK cells at the highest resolution ever.

They showed how a NK cells rearrange their internal 'scaffolding' of proteins to create a hole in their membrane, through which they deliver deadly enzyme-filled granules to kill diseased tissue.

The research, which is published in PLoS Biology, was led by Professor Daniel Davis, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London.

He said: "NK cells are important in our immune response to viruses and rogue tissues like tumours. They may also play a role in the outcome of bone marrow transplants by determining whether a recipient's body rejects or accepts the donated tissue."

The scientists hope that as a consequence of learning about how NK cells identify and kill tissue, they'll be able to use this information to develop or improve treatment.

Professor Davis said: "In the future, drugs that influence where and when NK cells kill could be included in medical treatments, such as the targeted killing of tumours. They may also prove useful in preventing the unwanted destruction by NK cells that may occur in transplant rejection or some auto-immune diseases."

Oliver Childs, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "Natural killer cells are part of a 'police force' of cells and proteins that can help to fight off disease, including cancer. Although this research is very far from impacting on today's cancer patients, work like this to understand the inner workings of such immune system components is crucial.

"History shows that insights in the lab can be translated into news ways to beat cancer, and it will be interesting to see where this work leads."

Copyright Press Association 2011


  • Brown ACN, Oddos S, Dobbie IM, Alakoskela J-M, Parton RM, et al. (2011) "Remodelling of Cortical Actin Where Lytic Granules Dock at Natural Killer Cell Immune Synapses Revealed by Super-Resolution Microscopy" PLoS Biol 9(9): e1001152. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001152