All Star NK-Cell Researcher

The Masonic Cancer Center is a national leader in NK cell research. In large part due to the all-star research of Dr. Jeffrey Miller.

Deputy Director of the MCC and Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Transplantation, Dr. Miller has devoted his academic career to researching NK cells. NK, or natural killer, cells are a type of white blood cell innate to the immune system.

They play a major role in defending the body against tumors and virally infected cells. NK cells are unique in their ability to recognize and kill harmful cells that lack particular markers, which enable them to slip under the radar of other infection-fighting immune cells. They were dubbed “natural killers” because they do not require activation to kill cells lacking these particular markers.

In the eponymously named Miller Laboratory, Dr. Miller and his team are pioneering methods to harness the powers of NK cells to cure cancer, improve patient outcomes following bone marrow transplants and treat infections.

They have produced significant wins in the fight against cancer. Dr. Miller was the first to report that NK cells, transplanted from a healthy, related donor (a sibling, parent, or child), can bring about remission in patients with refractory leukemia—the disease state when cancer cells continue to grow or when the response to treatment does not last very long.

Building upon that groundbreaking work, Dr. Miller and his team are focused on developing therapies with NK cells harvested from induced stem cells from normal fibroblasts. NK cells derived from these stem cells offer a renewable source for manufactured therapies that can be delivered “off-the-shelf” to treat a larger number of patients, with multiple doses if needed. To complete this focus, he is also testing strategies to activate the NK cells within a patient’s body and to engineer enhanced NK cells capable of targeting specific antigens.

“This is part of our long-term strategy to transition from individual, donor-derived NK cell therapies to off-the-shelf engineered NK cell products that offer enhanced specificity, ease of administration, and access to more patients in the cancer community,” said Dr. Miller.

A testament to his translational expertise, in August 2020, after months of planning and awaiting FDA approval, Dr. Miller’s laboratory launched a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of NK cells against COVID-19. Many severe cases of COVID-19 involve an overreaction of the immune system. Research in China showed a suppression of NK cells in severe COVID-19 patients. This suggests that NK cells are not part of the immune system overreaction and with their antiviral properties, could instead be a solution.

Throughout his career at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Miller has demonstrated his devotion to team science and faculty mentorship. He has supervised more than 400 NK cell products, sponsored more than 10 Investigational New Drugs, and with his team, has studied upwards of 4000 transplant patients.

Those are certainly All-Star stats. No doubt college All-American Danny Thompson and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew would agree.

Funding from KTM supports these life-saving investigator initiated studies, which populate the research pipeline with promising cancer treatments and therapies.