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
Gratifying progress has been made recently in an emerging area of cancer medicine called precision oncology. It’s a bold attempt to target treatment to the very genes and molecules driving a cancer, aiming to slow or even halt its growth. But there’s always more to learn. Now comes evidence that, while a single well-matched drug might be good, a tailored combination of drugs that attack a cancer in multiple ways at once might be even better.
The findings come from the I-PREDICT clinical trial, which treated people with advanced cancer who hadn’t benefited from previous therapy . The NIH-funded team found that analyzing a tumor’s unique genetic and molecular profile provided enough information to recommend individualized combination therapies to patients. What’s more, patients who followed their individualized combination therapies most closely lived longer, with longer periods of progression-free disease, than did those who took fewer of the recommended drugs.
In most previous clinical trials of precision oncology, researchers have relied on a tumor’s unique profile to identify a single, well-matched drug to treat each patient. But cancer is complex, and, just as with certain infectious diseases, tumors commonly develop resistance to a single drug.
In the trial reported in Nature Medicine, researchers led by Razelle Kurzrock and Jason Sicklick, University of California, San Diego, wondered if they could improve treatment responses by tailoring combinations of cancer drugs to target as many molecular and genetic changes in a person’s cancer as possible.
To test the potential for this strategy to work, the researchers enrolled 83 people with various cancers that had advanced despite previous treatment. Tumor tissue from each patient was run through a comprehensive battery of tests, and researchers sequenced hundreds of genes to look for telltale alterations in their DNA.
They also looked for evidence that a cancer had defects affecting the DNA “mismatch repair” pathway, which causes some tumors to generate larger numbers of mutations than others. Mismatch repair defects have been shown to predict better responses to immunotherapies, which are designed to harness the immune system against cancer .
With all the data in hand, a special panel of oncologists, pharmacologists, cancer biologists, geneticists, surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, and bioinformatics experts consulted to arrive at the right customized combination of drugs for each patient.
The panel’s findings were presented to the health care team working with each patient. The physician for each patient then had the final decision on whether to recommend the treatment regimen, balancing the panel’s suggestions with other real-world factors, such as a patient’s insurance coverage, availability of drugs, and his or her treatment preference.
Ten patients decided to stick with unmatched treatment. But 73 participants received a customized combination therapy. As no two molecular profiles were identical, the customized treatment regimens varied from person to person.
Many people received designer drugs targeting particular genetic alterations. Some also received checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapies to unleash the immune system against cancer. Four people also were treated with hormone therapies in combination with molecularly targeted drugs. In all, most regimens combined two to five drugs to target each cancer profile.
Participants were followed until their cancer progressed, they could no longer take treatment, or they died. For each person, the researchers calculated a “matching score,” roughly defined as the number of molecular alterations matched to administered drug(s), with some further calculations.
The evidence showed that those with matching scores greater than 50 percent, meaning more than half of a tumor’s identified aberrations had been targeted, were more likely to have stopped the progression of their cancers. Importantly, half of patients with the higher matching scores had prolonged stable disease (six months or longer) or a complete or partial remission. Similar results were attained in only 22 percent of those with low or no matching scores.
These encouraging results suggest that customized combinations of targeted treatments will help to advance precision oncology. However, there are still many challenges. For example, many of the combinations used in the study have not yet been safety tested. The researchers managed the potential risk of toxicities by starting patients on an initial low dose and having their physicians follow them closely while the dose was increased to a level well-tolerated by each individual patient.
And indeed, they saw no evidence that those receiving a greater proportion of “matched” drugs (i.e. those with a higher matching score) were more likely to experience adverse effects than those who took fewer drugs. So, that’s an encouraging sign.
The researchers are now enrolling patients in a new version of the I-PREDICT trial. Unlike the initial plan, patients are now being enrolled prior to receiving any treatment for a recently diagnosed aggressive, often-lethal form of cancer. The hope is that treating patients with well-matched, multi-drug treatment combinations early will yield even better results than waiting until standard treatment has failed. If correct, it would mark significant progress in building the future of precision oncology.
 Molecular profiling of cancer patients enables personalized combination therapy: the I-PREDICT study. Sicklick JK, Kato S, Okamura R, Schwaederle M, Hahn ME, Williams CB, De P, Krie A, Piccioni DE, Miller VA, Ross JS, Benson A, Webster J, Stephens PJ, Lee JJ, Fanta PT, Lippman SM, Leyland-Jones B, Kurzrock R. Nat Med. 2019 Apr 22.
Precision Medicine in Cancer Treatment (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Razelle Kurzrock (University of California, San Diego)
Jason Sicklick (University of California, San Diego)
NIH Support: 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
Zachary Morris has certainly done some memorable things. As a Rhodes Scholar, he once attended an evening reception at Buckingham Palace, played a game of pick-up football with former President Bill Clinton, and traveled to South Africa to take a Robben Island Prison tour, led by the late Nelson Mandela. But something the young radiation oncologist did during his medical residency could prove even more momentous. He received a special opportunity from the American Board of Radiology to join others in studying how to pair radiation therapy with the emerging cancer treatment strategy of immunotherapy.
Morris’s studies in animals showed that the two treatments have a unique synergy, generating a sustained tumor-specific immune response that’s more potent than either therapy alone. But getting this combination therapy just right to optimize its cancer-fighting abilities remains complicated. Morris, now a researcher and clinician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, has received a 2017 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to look deeper into this promising approach. He and his collaborators will use what they learn to better inform their future early stage clinical trials of radio-immunotherapy starting with melanoma, head and neck cancers, and neuroblastoma.