Dr. Niklas Björkström, Karolinska Institute, Huddinge, Sweden, receives the Anders Jahres Medical Awards for young scientists for his discoveries of how NK cells develop and function in physiological and pathological situations, especially in viral and malignant liver disease.
NK cells (natural killer cells) are immune cells that play an important role in identifying and destroying cancer cells and virus-infected cells. In his research, Björkström has registered how NK cells develop from stem cells in the bone marrow and has demonstrated how the cells differentiate in response to certain types of viral infections and organ-specific factors. The discoveries made by Björkström lay the foundations for the use of NK cells in cancer treatment and diagnostic detection of inflammatory disease in various organs.
- Why did I get interested in NK cell research
It’s actually a funny story and very much a coincidence that I became interested in NK cell research. I was a second-year medical student at Karolinska Institutet and a recent immunology course had opened up my eyes to that topic. I was looking for a lab to do a summer project in, wanting to find a place that was performing translational medical immunology research, and got recommended to reach out to Kalle Malmberg (Kalle is now Professor at UiO). Kalle was at that time a young physician scientist that had just established his own lab focused on human NK cells. He accepted me as a summer student but also warned me that he had just gotten a puppy so he would only be able to supervise me during evenings that summer, he had to be at home during the days to take care of the puppy. So, throughout that summer, we would start with experiments in the late afternoon and work until midnight, he taught me everything he knew about human NK cells, and after that I was completely hooked on studying those cells.
- What are my major discoveries
Our immune system contains many different types of immune cells where each type has a specific role in our immune response against foreign pathogens and cancer. All immune cells originate from stem cells in the bone marrow and undergo a sophisticated development and differentiation process leading to the mature cells. The result of this process are highly-specialized immune cells uniquely equipped to perform certain tasks. NK cells (natural killer cells) are immune cells that belong to our innate immune system. They are experts in killing other cells and their main tasks are to identifying cancer cells and virus-infected cells and eliminate these from our body. Some years ago, we discovered the process by which NK cells differentiate to become fully mature cells. Coupled to this, we also later came across a second type of NK cell differentiation that occurred specifically in response to certain viral infections. Immune cells are found throughout the human body. In recent years, we have started to appreciate that the function and properties of immune cells are highly influenced by the local microenvironment they reside in. For instance, immune cells found in the gut will behave differently compared to cells located in, for instance, the uterus or the liver. In relation to this, we have also made discoveries on how different tissue microenvironments influence NK cell differentiation and why that is important for combating infections, inflammatory diseases, and cancer in specific organs.
- What are the medical implications of my findings
We have over the last couple of years learnt completely new ways to combat cancer but unleashing the inherent capacities of our immune system. Based on this, we can today cure cancer in completely new and revolutionizing ways and discoveries that made this possible was for instance the basis for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018. One of the types of NK cells that we discovered when studying their differentiation process turned out to be a particularly efficient killer cell and this type of NK cell will soon be used in clinical trials against cancer. Other implications of our findings, for instance those on how immune cells in different tissues are developing, will in the future allow us to better understand why certain inflammatory diseases arise in particular organs, how we better can diagnose and make prognosis for such diseases, and hopefully, in the longer run, also inform us on new ways to treat them.