Anticancer Immune Cell Therapy: CIK, DC, NK, TIL, γδ T... What's the Difference?

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Anticancer immune cell therapies have gained significant attention due to their potential to harness the power of the body's immune cells to specifically target and eliminate cancer cells. Among the numerous immune cell types utilized in these therapies, some of the most noteworthy include cytokine-induced killer (CIK) cells, dendritic cells (DCs), natural killer (NK) cells, tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs), and gamma-delta T (γδ T) cells.

Creative Biolabs shares information about each immune cell therapy, highlighting their unique characteristics and mechanisms of action.

CIK Cell Therapy

CIK cells were first discovered in the 1990s, which combine the phenotypes of T cells and NK cells and have tumor-killing activity.

  • The acquisition process of CIK cells: Human peripheral blood mononuclear cells are co-cultured with various cytokines in vitro. CIK cells have the characteristics of fast proliferation, high activity, and broad tumor killing spectrum. They can secrete a variety of high-concentration cytokines and have certain cytotoxic and inhibitory effects.
  • The anti-tumor mechanism of CIK: a. directly kills cancer cells; b. induces effector T cells by releasing various cytokines, and indirectly kills tumor cells; c. expresses apoptosis-inhibiting genes, induces tumor cell apoptosis, and continues to fight against tumors.

DC-CIK Cell Therapy

DCs play a key role in initiating and regulating immune responses. They act as professional antigen-presenting cells, capturing antigens from pathogens or cancer cells and presenting them to T cells, thereby activating an immune response against the target.

The DC-CIK immunotherapy we often hear is to co-cultivate DC and CIK in vitro, and then infuse them back into the body to kill tumors. The interaction between the two cells not only promotes DC maturation, but also enhances the killing effect of CIK cells.

NK Cell Therapy

NK cells have the ability to regulate immunity, and can produce a large number of cytokines to act on tumor tissues without the need for matching with other immune cells before treatment, and without prior sensitization or immunization. NK cells have the characteristics of broad-spectrum killing, which account for 5% to 20% of peripheral blood mononuclear cells.

  • Sources of NK cells include peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), stem cells, and cord blood NK cell lines. Both autologous and allogeneic NK cells can be used in adoptive immunotherapy.
  • Mechanism of action of NK cells: a. secretes perforin-granules to rapidly dissolve target cells; b. induces apoptosis, but this mechanism is slow and inefficient; c. activated NK cells secrete various cytokines to regulate immunity.

TIL Cell Therapy

TILs are immune cells that infiltrate the tumor microenvironment. These cells are extracted from tumor tissue, expanded ex vivo, and then infused back into the patient.

  • The TIL population comprises various T cell subsets, including CD4+ helper T cells and CD8+ cytotoxic T cells, that act in concert to target tumor cells.
  • Currently, mature TIL immune cell preparations are composed of CD8+ and CD4+ T cells with a small number of γδ T cells.

γδ T Cell Therapy

γδ T cells represent a unique subset of T cells characterized by the expression of γδ T cell receptors instead of the conventional αβ T cell receptors. These cells possess both innate and adaptive immune features, allowing them to recognize a broad range of antigens, including stress-induced molecules on cancer cells.

The advantage of γδ T cell therapy lies in its multifunctional recognition ability and the potential to unleash a rapid and effective immune response against cancer cells.

Anticancer immune cell therapy holds great promise as a novel approach to combating cancer. CIK cells, DCs, NK cells, TILs, and γδ T cells represent a diverse array of immune cell types, each offering unique advantages in targeting and eradicating cancer cells.

Creative Biolabs understands the differences and complexities of these immune cell therapies, and helps researchers develop treatment strategies to maximize their potential and advance the field of cancer immunotherapy.


  1. Gun S Y, et al. Targeting immune cells for cancer therapy. Redox biology, 2019, 25: 101174.
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