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Srividya Swaminathan, PhD

Faculty Starter Grant in Drug Discovery, 2021 Beckman Research Institute

Harnessing Natural Killer Cells to Treat High-Risk B- and T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia


The immune system is the body’s natural defense against cancer. A type of immune cell that eliminates cancer is the natural killer (NK) cell. The goal of our research is to develop NK cells as therapies for blood cancers termed B- and T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B/T-ALL). Unfortunately, about 60% of adults and about 15% of children with B/T-ALL do not respond to conventional treatments because leukemic cells abnormally express high levels of certain cancer-causing proteins that reduce NK cell number and function. In this proposal, we will test the hypothesis that administering NK cells is a viable strategy to prevent disease recurrence in patients with B/T-ALL. We will employ patient-relevant approaches: 1) identify the defects in surveillance of adult and pediatric B/TALL by NK cells; 2) using “humanized” mice developed by us, delineate how human ALL cells suppress human NK cells; and 3) engineer NK therapies that cannot be suppressed by leukemia cells. Our studies will inform the development of diagnosis and treatment approaches using NK cells and improve the quality of life of people with B/T-ALL.

I am grateful to the PhRMA Foundation for providing me the first source of extramural funding after I established my independent lab. The Research Starter Grant has been instrumental in enabling my young team to develop novel applications of natural killer cell-mediated immune surveillance for diagnosis and treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Srividya Swaminathan