Can epigenetics make better cancer drugs?

Understanding how a new enzyme affects natural killer cells may eventually help make cancer drugs more effective, but scientists don’t yet have enough information about their molecular makeup to use them in the laboratory. (Credit: "petri dish" via Shutterstock)

Natural killer cells that can kill and contain viruses and cancerous tumors can be manipulated by epigenetics, a finding that paves the way for developing more effective cancer drugs.

“Natural killer cells are very attractive targets for immunotherapy because they are able to kill tumor cells,” says Si-Yi Chen, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.


“While scientists all around the world are working on developing new drugs using NK cells, none of the drugs in development focuses on epigenetic regulation of the cells.”

“Our study describes how an epigenetic process involving the enzyme MYSM1 plays a critical role in the development of natural killer cells.”

Epigenetics involve biochemical changes in the body that directly affect DNA, turning some genes on and turning others off. MYSM1 is an enzyme in the body’s immune system that turns genes on and off by modifying proteins called histones embedded in DNA.

For a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chen and colleagues used mice to demonstrate that MYSM1 is required for natural killer cells to mature and function properly.

“We found that MYSM1 creates access to proteins that enhance gene transcription and, ultimately, the maturation of natural killer cells themselves,” says Ph.D. student Vijayalakshmi Nandakumar, the study’s first author.

“To date, there are no elaborate reports linking an epigenetic phenomenon to natural killer cell development. More importantly, unlike conventional therapies, NK cell-based therapies have shown to be more effective against metastasis.

“We believe cancer drugs targeting this pathway could be a viable option for future immunotherapies.”

The National Institutes of Health and a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Specialized Center of Research Award supported the research.

Source: USC