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: Ning Wang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
As tumor cells divide and grow, they push, pull, and squeeze one another. While scientists have suspected those mechanical stresses may play important roles in cancer, it’s been tough to figure out how. That’s in large part because there hadn’t been a good way to measure those forces within a tissue. Now, there is.
As described in Nature Communications, an NIH-funded research team has developed a technique for measuring those subtle mechanical forces in cancer and also during development . Their ingenious approach is called the elastic round microgel (ERMG) method. It relies on round elastic microspheres—similar to miniature basketballs, only filled with fluorescent nanoparticles in place of air. In the time-lapse video above, you see growing and dividing melanoma cancer cells as they squeeze and spin one of those cell-sized “balls” over the course of 24 hours.
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.