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An Evolutionary Guide to New Immunotherapies

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Credit: Dave Titensor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.

While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.

Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.

With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense [1]. The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.

Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA [2]. Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.

It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA [3]. Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it [4].

Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.

Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.

Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells [5]. Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.

Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!


[1] Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.

[2] A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.

[3] Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.

[4] To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.

[5] Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.


Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Elde Lab (University of Utah)

Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)

Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)

Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute

Welcoming First Lady Jill Biden to NIH!

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Video Event

It was wonderful to have First Lady Jill Biden pay a virtual visit to NIH on February 3, 2021, on the eve of World Cancer Day. Dr. Biden joined me, National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Ned Sharpless, and several NCI scientists to discuss recent advances in fighting cancer. On behalf of the entire NIH community, I thanked the First Lady for her decades of advocacy on behalf of cancer education, prevention, and research. To view the event, go to 53:20 in this video. Credit: Adapted from White House video.

Fighting Cancer with Next-Gen Cell Engineering

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Kole Roybal
Credit: Susan Merrell

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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

Personalized Combination Therapies Yield Better Cancer Outcomes

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Doctor consulting with patient
Credit: NIH National Cancer Institute Visuals Online/Daniel Sone

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 [1]. 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.


[1] 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)

Study of Molecular Profile-Related Evidence to Determine Individualized Therapy for Advanced or Poor Prognosis Cancers (I-PREDICT) (

Razelle Kurzrock (University of California, San Diego)

Jason Sicklick (University of California, San Diego)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

New Target for Cancer Immunotherapy: Exosomes

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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 [1]. 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.


[1] 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

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