Niklas Björkström

PhD Karolinska Institutet Medicine Year of admission: 2016

The liver’s natural killer cells – how do they work?
Natural killer cells are an important element in the body’s protection against viruses and cancer cells. However, if these aggressive cells are wrongly activated they can cause serious damage. As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Niklas Björkström will investigate the liver’s natural killer cells and their role in various liver diseases.

Researchers had long thought that the natural killer cells, NK cells, found in the body’s various organs all had the same properties, but it has recently become clear that they are a mixed bag of cells that may even have different origins.

As a doctoral student, Dr. Niklas Björkström studied the blood’s NK cells. In the project he is currently running at Karolinska Institutet, he is investigating the NK cells found in the liver. As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow he will find out how they develop, how their activity is regulated and the role they play in steatohepatitis, a chronic liver disease in which the liver is fatty and inflamed, and during the development of tumors.

Niklas Björkström will also map the development of inflammation and cancer in the bile ducts. In order to study the immune cells of the bile ducts, which are deep in the body, he has developed a sensitive analysis technique that only requires a few thousand cells from his patients. More detailed knowledge of what governs inflammation in the liver and the bile ducts is necessary to be able to develop treatments for a number of fatal diseases.

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Photo: Markus Marcetic