New Gene-Based Approach to Cancer Treatment

Posted on Sept. 7, 2011, 6 a.m. in Cancer Gene Therapy

In a cancer treatment breakthrough 20 years in the making, University of Pennsylvania (US) researchers have shown sustained remissions of up to a year among a small group of advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients treated with genetically engineered versions of their own T cells. . The protocol, which involves removing patients' cells and modifying them in Penn's vaccine production facility, then infusing the new cells back into the patient's body following chemotherapy, provides a tumor-attack roadmap for the treatment of other cancers including those of the lung and ovaries and myeloma and melanoma. The findings are the first demonstration of the use of gene transfer therapy to create "serial killer" T cells aimed at cancerous tumors.  After removing the patients' cells, the team reprogrammed them to attack tumor cells by genetically modifying them using a lentivirus vector. The vector encodes an antibody-like protein, called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), which is expressed on the surface of the T cells and designed to bind to a protein called CD19. Once the T cells start expressing the CAR, they focus all of their killing activity on cells that express CD19, which includes CLL tumor cells and normal B cells. All of the other cells in the patient that do not express CD19 are ignored by the modified T cells, which limits side effects typically experienced during standard therapies. The team engineered a signaling molecule into the part of the CAR that resides inside the cell. When it binds to CD19, initiating the cancer-cell death, it also tells the cell to produce cytokines that trigger other T cells to multiply -- building a bigger and bigger army until all the target cells in the tumor are destroyed. The researchers observed a 1000-fold increase in the number of modified T cells in each of the patients, with each infused T cell able to kill thousands of tumor cells. Moving forward, the team plans to test the same CD19 CAR construct in patients with other types of CD19-positive tumors, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and acute lymphocytic leukemia. They also plan to study the approach in pediatric leukemia patients who have failed standard therapy. Additionally, the team has engineered a CAR vector that binds to mesothelin, a protein expressed on the surface of mesothelioma cancer cells, as well as on ovarian and pancreatic cancer cells.

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David L. Porter, Bruce L. Levine, Michael Kalos, Adam Bagg, Carl H. June. “Chimeric Antigen Receptor–Modified T Cells in Chronic Lymphoid Leukemia.” New England J Med., August 10, 2011.

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