Advantages and clinical applications of natural killer cells in cancer immunotherapy

Erik Ames, William J Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


The past decade has witnessed a burgeoning of research and further insight into the biology and clinical applications of natural killer (NK) cells. Once thought to be simple innate cells important only as cytotoxic effector cells, our understanding of NK cells has grown to include memory-like responses, the guidance of adaptive responses, tissue repair, and a delicate paradigm for how NK cells become activated now termed "licensing" or "arming." Although these cells were initially discovered and named for their spontaneous ability to kill tumor cells, manipulating NK cells in therapeutic settings has proved difficult and complex in part due to our emerging understanding of their biology. Therapies involving NK cells may either activate endogenous NK cells or involve transfers of exogenous cells by hematopoietic stem cell transplantation or adoptive cell therapy. Here, we review the basic biology of NK cells, highlighting characteristics which make NK cells particularly useful in cancer therapies. We also explore current treatment strategies that have been used for cancer as well as discuss potential future directions for the field.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-28
Number of pages8
JournalCancer Immunology, Immunotherapy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Adoptive transfer
  • CITIM 2013
  • Cytokines
  • HSCT
  • NK cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cancer Research
  • Oncology
  • Immunology
  • Immunology and Allergy


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