Researchers working on new immunotherapy that targets breast cancer cells

Reporter: Veronica Marshall
Published: Updated:
Julieta Cruz is a breast cancer survivor. (CREDIT: Courtesy)

Researchers believe more than 43,000 women will die from breast cancer this year but a team of researchers is working on an innovative new immunotherapy that activates the body’s natural killer cells into attacking breast cancer cells.

“I found a lump and I ignored it. I was breastfeeding, so I thought it was just a clogged duct,” said Julieta Cruz, a breast cancer survivor.

Just a few months later Cruz was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I had 16 rounds of chemo and by the fourth round of chemo, the tumor had completely melted away,” Cruz said.

But the chemo took more than just Cruz’s tumor.

“Going through chemo is completely crazy. It’s like having a hangover times 10,” Cruz said.

Cruz said she felt like a sprayed cockroach.

“I can’t think clearly,” she said. “I constantly have notes everywhere. Just simple tasks – I have to write down stuff because chemo brain is a thing.”

Cruz said she lost her lashes, eyebrows and her hair.

“I had cystic pimples all over my face. It was so swollen, I had to go to a dermatologist to have some medication for that,” Cruz said.

Clemson University’s Dr. Yanzhang “Charlie” Wei says his new research could lead to a gentler option. 

“I know anything, any new option, will be better than chemotherapy,” said Wei with Clemson University’s Department of Biological Sciences.

“The goal of this research is trying to bridge the breast cancer cells together with another important immune cell called natural killer cells,” Wei said. “That will activate the natural killer cells to kill cancer cells or breast cancer cells. At the same time, the prolactin antagonist activity is still there, which will inhibit the target cell, which here is a breast cancer cell, from growing. So it’s a kind of double sword approach.”

Wei says the protein bridge his team created could trigger a patient’s immune system to kill the cancer cells. So far, he’s seeing success in test tubes but it could take a decade or more for the therapy to reach patients.

“Not only breast cancer cells express prolactin receptors – many of our normal body cells express this receptor,” Wei said. “We have to do a series of tests to see if this protein will pull the natural killer cells to our healthy body cells and kill them as a side effect.”

The next step, Wei said, is to do animal model studies.

Hope on the horizon for future patients.

“I was told it takes a little over a year for your body to actually come back,” Cruz said.


Research article on innovative new immunotherapy that activates the body’s natural killer cells into attacking breast cancer cells. 

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