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The Race to supercharge T cells fighting cancer


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Crystal Mackall Remembers her initial scepticism when she heard about a method to engineer T cells that could kill cancer. Sitting In the audience at a 1996 meeting GermanyThe paediatric surgeon oncologist said this to the person sitting next to her: “No way. That’s too crazy.”

TodayHowever, the reality is that things are very different. “I’ve been humbled,” ” MackallHe now works as a consultant at Stanford University In California These cells can be used to treat brain tumors. The US Food Drug Administration In 2017, the FDA approved the first modifed T cells called chimeric antibody receptor (CAR-T) cells to treat leukemia. The Treatments for many cancers are now a game-changer. Five Similar products have been approved and received by more than 20,000 people. This field, once driven only by a few dedicated researchers, now has hundreds of lab groups from academia and industry. More More than 500 clinical trials are underway. Other approaches are also being considered as researchers race to improve T-cell designs and expand their capabilities. “This field is going to go way beyond cancer in the years to come,” Mackall predicts.

Advances CRISPR and genome editing have allowed for the development of more sophisticated methods to modify and charge T cells for therapy. Such Techniques are being developed to address some of the limitations in current CAR–T therapies. These treatments can be costly and can have harmful side effects. “These techniques have expanded what we’re able to do with CAR strategies,” ” Avery PoseyA cancer immunology researcher at The University Of Pennsylvania In Philadelphia. “It will really take this type of technology forward.”

Even This is where the challenge lies in making it happen. ‘living drug’ from a person’s cells extends beyond complicated designs. Safety Many of the most recent candidates still have manufacturing issues to address. “There’s an explosion of very fancy things, and I think that’s great,” says immunologist Michel Sadelain The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center In New York City. “But the complexity cannot always be brought as described into a clinical setting.”

Revved Ready to go?

CAR-T therapies capitalize on the activities of T cells, the immune system’s natural hunters that prowl through the body looking for things that don’t belong. Foreign Infected cells (cells) express unusual proteins that signal T cells to release toxic compounds to kill the cells. This Although search-and destroy function can be used to eliminate cancer cells, there are many ways that tumours can disarm the immune system. These include cloaking abnormal proteins and suppressing T-cell activity.

CAR-T cells carry synthetic proteins — the chimeric antigen receptors — that span the cell membrane. On The outside acts as an antibody and binds to certain molecules on some cancer cells’ surfaces. Once Once the protein has been bound, it stimulates T-cell activity by hot-wiring the cell into action. The It is now a small, highly-powered, cancer-fighting machine.

Approved CAR-T therapies target a specific protein on immune cells called the B cells. They can be used to treat certain forms leukaemia or lymphoma that cause uncontrolled cell proliferation. The proteins — CD19 and BCMA — are not unique to cancer, meaning that the therapies kill B cells indiscriminately. HoweverPeople can live without these cells.

Composite coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of T-cells and prostate cancer cells (pink)

T cells (blue), part of the immune system, attack prostate cancer cells (pink).Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/SPL

There There is still much to be done in CAR-T therapies. Although These effects can last for a long time — sometimes even curative — cancer eventually returns in most people who have been treated. Solid CAR-T cells are not effective against tumours like those in the pancreatic or lung cancers. The There are safety risks associated with therapy and in some cases it can be fatal. And It must be customized for each recipient by using their T cells starting point. This can lead to a slow and expensive manufacturing process.

As There aren’t simple solutions to these problems. “We clearly have a long way to go,” ” Mackall. “But we’re now seeing promising signals.”

Some Solid tumours are being tackled. These Sometimes cells are made up of a heterogeneous mix of cells with different combinations of mutations. This This means that only a subset of cells might benefit from a CAR–T therapy targeting a specific mutated protein. The tight mass of a solid tumour can also be difficult for T cells to penetrate, and researchers have struggled to find suitable targets that won’t wreak havoc in healthy tissues.

Despite Some clinical trials have also shown some signs of efficacy. Mackall Her colleagues engineered CAR–T cells to target a protein called GD2 by her team. This protein is high-expressed in certain brain and spinal-cord cancers known as gliomas. The One intravenous dose was administered by the team to patients suffering from gliomas. The brain was then given multiple lower doses. She According to her colleagues, three out of four patients treated in this manner responded positively last year.1. “These cells just dive right into the brain,” ” Mackall. “And the body doesn’t reject them up there — it’s playing in that immune-privileged space.”

Targeting Solid tumours might require T-cell therapy that targets cancer cells with higher levels of a specific protein than normal. One Clinical trial reporting results November 2022 went one step further: Instead of using CARs CRISPR was used by the team to create natural T-cell receptors (see ‘Targeting T cells’) to recognize mutated proteins found in each participant’s tumour2. The In the hope of reducing resistance to multiple therapies, patients received a mixture cell mix that targeted different proteins. Tumours 5 of 16 participants showed no growth 28 days after treatment. Researchers To increase effectiveness, we hope to modify the protocol to give higher doses.

TARGETING T CELLS. Graphic showing how cancer treatments use T cells to kill tumours.

Source: Premier ResearchAdapted from

The Immunologists also report that the ability to fine-tune and track T-cell activity is getting better. Carl June The University Of Pennsylvania. Through Advanced single-cell analysis allows researchers to track the fate of engineered cells as well as the tumours that they are meant to kill. They It is possible to determine which T cells have changed ‘exhausted’ — a dysfunctional state that can come from prolonged stimulation — and which tumour cells are becoming resistant to treatment. They It is also possible to determine if an environment surrounding a CAR–T-treated tumour has become full of immune-suppressing cells (such a macrophages, regulatory T cells). Overcoming Local immune suppression is key to harnessing T-cells to fight solid tumors, according to Yangbing ZhaoUTC’s chief scientific officer, Dr. TherapeuticsBiotechnology company with headquarters in In Singapore CAR-T therapies are being developed by this company. “No matter how many targets you target, if the tumour is evading the immune response, it won’t work,” He said.

June His colleagues used a single cell approach to investigate resistance to CAR–T therapies that target CD19. They found that CAR–T products that were less capable of activating certain helper T cells were associated to the emergence resistance3. They Single-cell techniques were also used to study why CAR-T cells that are directed against mesothelin (a protein found in pancreatic carcinoma cells) often fail. Reducing Two genes from CAR-T cells could be activated to boost the therapy4. “We’re going to be able to understand these resistance mechanisms,” ” June. “And then with all of these tools like CRISPR, we’re going to engineer around them.”

In CRISPR is used to not only edit T cells but also to discover other ways to modify them. Immunologist Alexander Marson The Gladstone Institutes In San Francisco, CaliforniaCRISPR was used by a number of his colleagues to activate or disable thousands of genes in T cells. Next, the researchers looked at how these changes affected the production of critical immune-regulating proteins called Cytokines.5. In CRISPR was used to screen another screen. The team found that CAR-T cells were able to kill their targets by reducing the activity a protein called RASA2.6. “We’re learning lessons about the genes that we can turn up and turn down to tune T cells to behave as we want,” ” Marson.

Synthetic Biologists also have their eyes on T cells. They are developing sophisticated cellular circuits that can be used to control the expression of CARs, other proteins that might enhance T-cell activity. In December Last year, synthetic biologist Wendell Lim The University Of California, San FranciscoReporting by him and his coworkers7 They had designed T cells to express both a CAR as well as IL-2, an immuno-regulating protein. Although IL-2 can increase T-cell penetration of solid tumours and counter the immunosuppressive signals released by tumours, it can also be toxic when administered systemically. Letting The production of IL-2 by T cells allows for local administration, which may bypass its toxic effect on other tissues.

Other Synthetic circuits are designed to regulate CAR expression precisely by placing it under control of genetic elements which activate the required genes in response to drugs.8. So However, many of these complicated designs are still not subject to the safety standards and standardization required for human use. Sadelain.

Researchers There are so many lessons to be learned that it is difficult for oncologists to determine which engineered T cells can be used in human studies. Marcela Maus at Massachusetts General Hospital In Boston. “We can invent and innovate so much in the lab, but there is this funnel of translating that into clinical trials,” She says. “There’s so many things we can do. We have to figure out which are the best things to tweak and test in trials.”

Costly business

Manufacturing By pharmaceutical standards, CAR-T cells are already extremely complex. So far, all approved therapies require engineering a person’s own T cells to express the CAR. That The time and cost involved in producing therapies can be increased by using the United StatesCAR-T cells are a cost-effective treatment that can treat multiple conditions.

Creating CAR-T cells that can be given to multiple people — often called off-the-shelf cells — has long been viewed as crucial to lowering the price of the therapy. But Early results indicate that there is still much to be done, according to a bioengineer Rahul Purwar The Indian Institute Of Technology Bombay. Although You can edit the cells to lower the risk that they will be killed by the immune systems. However, early trials indicate that they don’t survive long after an infusion and could still be rejected (ref. 9)9. “Off-the-shelf is a great approach,” He said. “It is coming, but right now we are not yet there.”

The It is rare that therapy is available in countries other than the wealthy. In BrazilA haematologist Renato Luiz Guerino Cunha at Oncoclínicas Group in São Paulo CAR-T therapy was first administered in 2019 by the hospital. But He says that progress has been slow because he doesn’t have the ability to quickly produce large numbers of cells. “In three years, we treated just six patients,” He said. “We need new technology for the processing.”

Producing CAR-T cells therapy uses a type of virus called the lentivirus as a vector for the synthetic CAR genes. But Clinical-grade lentiviruses are in high demand as a result of increased research into gene therapies. Researchers Now, wait for months and then pay top dollar to finish their experiments. Cunha Produces his own, but only in small quantities. Improvements This could be achieved by CRISPR gene editing.

Despite The challenges remain, and CAR-T therapies are constantly evolving. Some of the hundreds worldwide clinical trials explore entirely new applications. Last An investigation of CAR–T therapies to treat an autoimmune form of Lupus was reported by researchers last year.10. And In a study on mice, researchers reprogrammed the T cells without first removing them from their bodies. They instead created CAR–T cells to remove scar tissue from the heart.11.

In December, June His colleagues and he devised a method to speed up cell production. At The American Society Of Hematology’s annual meeting in New Orleans, LouisianaThe team announced12 CAR-T cell manufacturing times were reduced and CART cells were engineered to express a protein called IL-18. Researchers were able reduce the number of people being given cells by reducing their dosage. “Those patients had incredible responses,” ” Maus The clinical trial “which gives you this really tantalizing hint that if you engineer the T cell better, you can make it even more powerful.”

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