Unleashing the power of natural killers against CLL

What if natural killer cells could overcome the protective environment of the lymph nodes? Could this take us one step closer to better treatment for CLL?



During his prestigious John Goldman Fellowship, Dr Matthew Blunt, University of Southampton, discovered that lymph nodes can act as a protective shield for cancer cells, helping them to survive and thrive.

As part of his Follow-up Fund research project, Dr Blunt will investigate if these lymph nodes can be targeted to improve the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

The challenge

Around 3,800 people each year in the UK are diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) – the most common type of leukaemia.

Patients who develop resistance to current CLL treatments – where the cancer changes and treatment stops working – have a poor prognosis. There is therefore an urgent need for more effective treatments for the disease.

Immunotherapy – stimulating the body’s own immune system to target cancer cells – has emerged recently as an effective new type of cancer treatment. CAR-T is one promising new type of immunotherapy involving modified T-cells. Dr Blunt is researching the potential of harnessing another type  of immune cell to fight cancer – natural killer cells.

Natural killer (NK) cell therapies are already showing promise in clinical trials and importantly, are not associated with the severe toxicities that can be associated with current T cell-based treatments. NK cells therefore offer a safer approach for patients, however more research is needed to fully unlock their potential and maximise their effectiveness as a possible treatment for CLL.

The science behind the research

In CLL, lymph nodes and the environment surrounding them are critical for cancer cell survival, growth and drug resistance. Dr Blunt and his research team have found that signals in the lymph nodes could also block the activity of NK cell therapy, affecting how well treatment works.

In his project, Dr Blunt will use patient tumour samples and cutting-edge laboratory techniques to uncover how cancer cells within lymph nodes become resistant to NK therapies and will then find the best way to overcome this.

As one possible strategy to enhance NK cell therapy, the team will test Selinexor – a drug treatment  already approved for some types of blood cancer. Could this treatment in combination with NK cell therapy hold the key to unleashing the immune system against CLL?

What does this mean for patients?

The ultimate aim of this research is to develop more effective immunotherapies capable of targeting CLL cells within the protective environment of the lymph nodes to more effectively eradicate tumour cells in patients.

Using the immune system to fight cancer has the potential to eradicate CLL cells whilst sparing healthy cells. This therefore offers a kinder, safer treatment approach compared to chemotherapy.

Project information

Lead researcher

Dr Matthew Blunt


University of Southampton

Blood cancer type


Award type

John Goldman Fellowship Follow-up Fund

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