Searching for a Cure: Dr. Anahid Jewett

Posted on: Wednesday, 07/25/2018

Natural Killer Cells Link to Eliminating Cancer

“I have collaborations with cancer researchers from around the world. I am hopeful that with the pace of my lab’s advancements, we will be able to have effective treatments for pancreatic cancers in the very near future.”

Dr. Anahid Jewett, professor of Oral Biology, thinks her fascination with fighting cancer began at a very early age. “Everyone, including my mother, was afraid of cancer and as a child that left a very strong impression on me, to the extent that I made it my mission to make this disease disappear,” she said. “I chose to pursue cancer research as my main career path and to figure out how and why the failure of our immune system is the start and progression of cancer. Now, my approach is to find out how to restore immune function to either prevent or treat aggressive tumors.”

For the past 25 years, Dr. Jewett has dedicated her life to figuring out why cancer stem cells (CSCs) are able to survive in patients. She believes the key is to focus on natural killer cells or NK cells, which are known to kill many different types of CSCs, including oral, pancreatic, lung, breast, glioblastoma, and melanoma tumors. Much of her recent work has focused on pancreatic cancer – one of the most challenging and difficult forms of cancer. 

“We are making significant progress in the field of immunity to pancreatic cancer, and my greatest hope is that most of these discoveries are going to be used in human pancreatic cancer trials,” said Dr. Jewett. “We are even in the process of starting clinical trials in China using super-charged NK cells.”

To test whether NK cells could help minimize pancreatic cancer tumors, Dr. Jewett and her team developed a humanized mouse model with an intact human immune system. They injected these mice with pancreatic CSCs along with NK cells and they found that the CSCs did not grow or metastasize to other parts of the body. 

The team’s next strategy was to ‘super-charge’ the NK cells using osteoclasts, a cell that breaks down bone, but also expands highly functional NK cells to levels that are superior to other methodologies in the oncology field. With this strategy, they were able to shrink pancreatic tumors in their mouse models by greater than 90 percent, and the small number of tumors left within the pancreas of the mice injected with super-charged NK cells grew very slow, and they were no longer cancer stem cells.

“Natural killer cells are the body’s natural defense against cancer cells, we just had to figure out a way to increase their numbers and make them stronger,” said Dr. Jewett, who is also a member of the Weintraub Center for Reconstructive Biotechnology and the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Our findings provide a hopeful glimpse into the development of new therapies for pancreatic cancer.”

In addition to injecting NK cells into a tumor mouse model, Dr. Jewett and her team fed a combination of bacteria, named AJ2, to a second mouse model. The bacteria, in conjunction with the super-charged NK cells, further increased the model’s survival rate and cancer fighting capabilities. With these strategies the team was able to completely eradicate the aggressive tumors in mice.

Dr. Jewett’s technology with super-charged NK cells are currently being used in human clinical trials, and her bacterial supplement AJ2 is being manufactured by a company, headquartered in Iowa, as an adjunct therapeutic strategy for pancreatic cancer patients.