Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Researchers continue to make progress with cancer immunotherapy, a type of treatment that harnesses the body’s own immune cells to attack cancer. But Kole Roybal wants to help move the field further ahead by engineering patients’ immune cells to detect an even broader range of cancers and then launch customized attacks against them.
With an eye toward developing the next generation of cell-based immunotherapies, this synthetic biologist at University of California, San Francisco, has already innovatively hacked into how certain cells communicate with each other. Now, he and his research team are using a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to build upon that progress.
Roybal’s initial inspiration is CAR-T therapy, one of the most advanced immunotherapies to date. In CAR-T therapy, some of a cancer patient’s key immune cells, called T cells, are removed and engineered in a way that they begin to produce new surface proteins called chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). Those receptors allow the cells to recognize and attack cancer cells more effectively. After expanding the number of these engineered T cells in the lab, doctors infuse them back into patients to enhance their immune systems’s ability to seek-and-destroy their cancer.
As helpful as this approach has been for some people with leukemia, lymphoma, and certain other cancers, it has its limitations. For one, CAR-T therapy relies solely on a T cell’s natural activation program, which can be toxic to patients if the immune cells damage healthy tissues. In other patients, the response simply isn’t strong enough to eradicate a cancer.
Roybal realized that redirecting T cells to attack a broader range of cancers would take more than simply engineering the receptors to bind to cancer cells. It also would require sculpting novel immune cell responses once those receptors were triggered.
Roybal found a solution in a new class of lab-made receptors known as Synthetic Notch, or SynNotch, that he and his colleagues have been developing over the last several years [1, 2]. Notch protein receptors play an essential role in developmental pathways and cell-to-cell communication across a wide range of animal species. What Roybal and his colleagues found especially intriguing is the protein receptors’ mode of action is remarkably direct.
When a protein binds the Notch receptor, a portion of the receptor breaks off and heads for the cell nucleus, where it acts as a switch to turn on other genes. They realized that engineering a cancer patient’s immune cells with synthetic SynNotch receptors could offer extraordinary flexibility in customized sensing and response behaviors. What’s more, the receptors could be tailored to respond to a number of user-specified cues outside of a cell.
In his NIH-supported work, Roybal will devise various versions of SynNotch-engineered cells targeting solid tumors that have proven difficult to treat with current cell therapies. He reports that they are currently developing the tools to engineer cells to sense a broad spectrum of cancers, including melanoma, glioblastoma, and pancreatic cancer.
They’re also engineering cells equipped to respond to a tumor by producing a range of immune factors, including antibodies known to unleash the immune system against cancer. He says he’ll also work on adding engineered SynNotch molecules to other immune cell types, not just T cells.
Given the versatility of the approach, Roybal doesn’t plan to stop there. He’s also interested in regenerative medicine and in engineering therapeutic cells to treat autoimmune conditions. I’m looking forward to see just how far these and other next-gen cell therapies will take us.
 Engineering Customized Cell Sensing and Response Behaviors Using Synthetic Notch Receptors. Morsut L, Roybal KT, Xiong X, Gordley RM, Coyle SM, Thomson M, Lim WA. Cell. 2016 Feb 11;164(4):780-91.
 Engineering T Cells with Customized Therapeutic Response Programs Using Synthetic Notch Receptors. Roybal KT, Williams JZ, Morsut L, Rupp LJ, Kolinko I, Choe JH, Walker WJ, McNally KA, Lim WA. Cell. 2016 Oct 6;167(2):419-432.e16.
Car-T Cells: Engineering Patients’ Immune Cells to Treat Cancers (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Synthetic Biology for Technology Development (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)
Roybal Lab (University of California, San Francisco)
Roybal Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
It was once a central tenet of biology that RNA molecules did their work inside the cell. But it’s now clear that RNA molecules are also active outside the cell, with potentially major implications for our health. To learn more about these unrecognized roles, the NIH Common Fund has launched the Extracellular RNA (exRNA) Communication Program.
This month, members of this research consortium described their latest progress in unraveling the secrets of exRNA in a group of 18 papers in the Cell family of journals. And it’s not just RNA that the consortium is studying, it’s also proteins. Among the many exciting results just published is the serendipitous discovery that proteins carried inside tiny, bubble-like vesicles, called exosomes, may influence a cancer’s response to immunotherapy . The work sheds light on why certain cancers are resistant to immunotherapy and points to new strategies for unleashing the immune system in the fight against cancer.
The new findings center on a type of immunotherapy drugs known as checkpoint inhibitors. They are monoclonal antibodies produced by industry that can boost the immune system’s ability to attack and treat cancer.
One of those antibodies specifically targets a protein, called PD-1, on the surface of certain immune cells. When PD-1 binds a similarly named protein, called PD-L1, on the surface of another cell, the interaction prevents immune cells from attacking. Some tumors seem to have learned this and load up on PD-L1 to evade the immune system.
That’s where checkpoint inhibitors come in. By blocking the interaction between PD-1 and PD-L1, the treatment removes a key check on the immune system, allowing certain immune cells to wake up and attack the tumor.
Checkpoint inhibitors work better in some cancer types than in others. In melanoma, for example, up to about 30 percent of patients respond to checkpoint inhibitor therapy. But in prostate cancer, response rates are in the single digits.
Researchers led by Robert Blelloch, a member of the exRNA consortium and a scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, wanted to know why. He and his team looked for clues in RNA within the cells taken from immunotherapy-resistant prostate cancers.
As published in Cell, the researchers got their first hint of something biologically intriguing in an apparent discrepancy in their data. As they expected from prior work, PD-L1 protein was present in the treatment-resistant cancers. But the PD-L1 messenger RNAs (mRNA), which serve as templates for producing the protein, told an unexpected story. The resistant cancer cells made far more PD-L1 mRNAs than needed to produce the modest levels of PD-L1 proteins detected inside the cells.
Where was the missing PD-L1? Blelloch’s team found it in exosomes. The cancer cells were packaging large quantities of the protein inside exosomes and secreting them out of the cell to other parts of the body.
In additional studies with a mouse model of prostate cancer, the researchers found that those PD-L1-packed exosomes travel through the blood and lymphatic systems to lymph nodes, the sites where immune cells become activated. Once there, PD-L1-laden exosomes put the immune system to sleep, preventing certain key cells from locating and attacking the cancer, including the primary tumor and places where it may have spread.
In important follow up studies, the researchers edited two genes in cancer cells to prevent them from producing exosomes. And, in the absence of exosomes, the cells no longer formed tumors. Importantly, both edited and unedited cells still produced PD-L1, but only those that exported PD-L1 in exosomes disarmed the immune system. Studies in a mouse model of immunotherapy-resistant colorectal cancer yielded similar results.
The new evidence suggests that blocking the release of PD-L1 in exosomes, even temporarily, might allow the immune system to launch a successful and sustained attack against a cancer.
Blelloch notes that many intriguing questions remain. For example, it’s not yet clear why antibodies that target PD-L1 on cancer cells don’t disable PD-L1 found in exosomes. The good news is that the new findings suggest it may be possible to find small molecules that do target PD-L1-packed exosomes, unleashing the immune system against cancers that don’t respond to existing checkpoint inhibitors. In fact, Blelloch’s team is already screening for small molecules that might fit the bill.
Since its launch about five years ago, the exRNA Communication Program has published an impressive 480 peer-reviewed papers, including the latest work in the Cell family of journals. I’d encourage readers to click on some of the other excellent work. I hear that another batch of papers will be published later this year.
 Suppression of exosomal PD-L induces systemic anti-tumor immunity and memory. Poggio M, Hu T, Pai CC, Chu B, Belair CD, Chang A, Montabana E, Lang UE, Fu Q, Fong L, Blelloch R. Cell. 2019 Apr 4;177(2):414-427.
Video: Unlocking the Mysteries of RNA Communication (Common Fund/NIH)
Immunotherapy to Treat Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Blelloch Lab (University of California, San Francisco)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Drug Abuse
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Credit: Michele Ardolino, University of Ottawa, and Brian Weist, Gilead Sciences, Foster City, CA
Cancer immunotherapies, which enlist a patient’s own immune system to attack and shrink developing tumors, have come a long way in recent years, leading in some instances to dramatic cures of widely disseminated cancers. But, as this video highlights, new insights from immunology are still being revealed that may provide even greater therapeutic potential.
Our immune system comes equipped with all kinds of specialized cells, including the infection-controlling Natural Killer (NK) cells. The video shows an army of NK cells (green) attacking a tumor in a mouse (blood vessels, blue) treated with a well-established type of cancer immunotherapy known as a checkpoint inhibitor. What makes the video so interesting is that researchers didn’t think checkpoint inhibitors could activate NK cells.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy, Jim Allison has spent decades tackling major scientific challenges. So it’s interesting that Allison would consider one of the top five moments in his life jamming onstage with country star Willie Nelson. Yes, in addition to being a top-flight scientist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Allison plays a mean harmonica.
Allison taught himself how to bend notes on the harmonica as a teenager growing up in a small Texas town. By his 20s, Allison was good enough to jam a couple of nights a week with the now legendary Clay Blaker & the Texas Honky Tonk Band. When Blaker asked if he wanted to hit the road with the band, Allison declined. He had his postdoctoral training to finish in molecular immunology.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Hope your 2018 is off to a great start.
Over the holidays, the journal Science published its annual, end-of-the-year list of research breakthroughs, from anthropology to zoology. I always look forward to seeing the list and reflecting on some of the stunning advances reported in the past 12 months. Last year was no exception. Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, as chosen by its editors, was in the field of astrophysics. Scientists were able to witness the effects of the collision of two neutron stars—large stars with collapsed inner cores—smacking into each other 130 million light years away. How cool is that!
Numbered prominently among the nine other breakthroughs were five from biomedicine: gene therapy, gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, cryo-EM, and biology preprints. All involved varying degrees of NIH support, and all drew great interest from readers. In fact, three of the top four vote-getters in the “People’s Choice” category came from biomedicine. That includes the People’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year: gene therapy success. And so, in what has become a Director’s Blog tradition, I’ll kick off our new year of posts by taking a closer look at these biomedical breakthroughs—starting with the little girl in the collage above, and moving clockwise around the images: