What Role do Natural Killer Cells play in MS?

The Trish MS Research Foundation has part funded a Project Grant, ‘What Role do Natural Killer Cells play in MS?’, the Chief Investigator being Dr Fiona McKay, Westmead Institute for Medical Research, NSW.

Natural killer (NK) cells are responsible for killing harmful cells in the body. This includes the body’s own cells that are infected with viruses, and other immune cells that inappropriately attack our own body (autoimmune cells).

Previous work by Dr Fiona McKay and colleagues found that in some people with MS, their NK cells are not working properly. In a laboratory model of MS, they also found that malfunction of NK cells is associated with increased MS relapses.

In this Project Grant Dr McKay and her team are determining if NK cells from people with MS are able to kill cells infected with viruses, and/or autoimmune cells, in the laboratory. A number of drugs that enhance the function of NK cells have been approved to treat cancer. Dr McKay is investigating if these drugs can be repurposed to improve the function of NK cells in people with MS to kill cells infected with viruses, and/or autoimmune cells.

Dr McKay and her term have developed a test to characterise and compare different sub-types of NK cells. This technique involves passing the cells past a laser that allows them to detect over 21 different properties of the cells. This will help to reveal any differences in natural killer cells from people with and without MS.

They have also generated a system using cells grown in the laboratory in which to examine Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) infection of B cells. This virus plays an important role in the development of MS, but the exact mechanisms by which it influences susceptibility to MS remains unclear. Dr McKay and her team will use this system to see whether NK cells from people with and without MS can effectively kill B-cells that are infected with EBV and whether this might be a mechanism by which EBV plays a role in MS.

They will then use drugs to try and bolster NK cells’ abilities to kill EBV-infected cells and see whether this will improve the capacity of NK cells from people with MS to kill EBV-infected cells, or autoimmune cells.