Saturday, August 13, 2011

T cells Receive Molecular Ammo to Kill Cancer: new research highlights the great potential of immunotherapy to treat leukemia

T cells (Blue) attacking a cancer cell (white) in vitro. From The Center for Cancer Research
Spotted: Good Scientific Journalism!
The popular media has all been a buzz this week over an exciting new study about a new possible cancer treatment.  As a PhD Immunology Student, I have to begin by complementing NPR science reporter, Joe Palca for his post on the NPR Health Blog, Shots for 1) describing the basics behind immunotherapy in a way for the public to understand and 2) for "warning" the reader that the sample size is very small and that this is preliminary research.  Both points are important to state clearly, as often we, the public, reads a brief story about a new therapy and we instantly want to use it and have it work 100%.  Although, the sample size of this study was merely 3 individuals, the fundamental technique and findings offer great promise in the development of the most effective, least invasive treatments to combat cancer.
Gene Therapy: Engineering Cells to Cure Disease
Basic procedure behind gene therapy whereby a patient's own T cells are isolated then engineered to express a certain protein it didn't express before, then the engineered T cells are injected back into the patient to help fight the disease. From
A University of Pennsylvania research team, lead by renowned tumor immunologist, Carl June, tested a novel therapy to help treat three individuals with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).  The technique is an improvement in a molecular genetics technique called gene therapy.  The principle behind gene therapy is to equip cells with a function that that particular cell didn’t have before.   
One of the first human-based study that gene therapy was used to treat babies born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).  SCID is named as such because people born with this genetic disease, have essentially no immune system making them incredibly susceptible to illnesses-think David Vetter aka “The Bubble Boy”.  One of the most common causes of SCID is a single genetic deficiency in a gene called adenosine deaminase (ADA).  ADA is important in the building of new nucleotides for DNA synthesis, and as you might imagine, without this ADA enzyme, DNA synthesis ceases and without the ability to generate new strands of DNA, cells die when they divide.  So ADA-deficiency largely affects highly proliferating cells, like your B and T cells.  To treat ADA-deficiency, stem cells are isolated from the patient and sent to a laboratory, where the cells will be transduced with a viral vector.  This virus is not immunogenic and is just used as a vector-something to deliver the ADA gene to the cell.  Once the virus gets in, it will insert the ADA gene into the DNA of the isolated patient’s cell.  The power of genetic therapy is great since what happens is “fixing” cells to express a necessary gene, like ADA, that the cells didn’t express before!  Once the cells express ADA, they are transplanted back into the patient, where theoretically the person is cured of their genetic deficiency.
However, there are many challenges to genetic therapy, which scientists have struggled with including: how to make the newly injected “fixed” cells last longer?  These cells don’t seem to survive very long in the patient post transplantation, requiring patients to undergo this treatment over and over.  Another concern is the lack of control of where the gene of interest inserts.  For example, sometimes the gene is inserted in an unstable location, and cells lose the expression of the inserted gene over time. 
Since the early 1990’s when gene therapy was used to treat ADA-deficiency, researchers have used this genetic technique as a means to treat a variety of human diseases including Parkinson’s Disease, myeloid lymphoma, and HIV.  With each trial, comes better understanding and innovations in perfecting the therapy to enhance its effectiveness.

The Molecular Immunolog:Re-engineering Our Immune System to Kill Cancer
Creating Chimeric Antigen Receptors (CARs) by piecing together signaling components from different proteins using molecular biology. CART19 would look similar with the anti-tumor extracellular domain to recognize CD19 with the intracellular TCR signaling domain. From
            The new study, published in two parts by June’s group in TheNew England Journal of Medicine and Science TranslationalMedicine, provide novel innovations to gene therapy as a potential treatment of CLL. CLL is a form of cancer in which B cells grow out of control and form tumors.  The goal of June’s latest published research was to figure out a way for a patient’s own body to find the B cell tumor and kill it.  Sounds pretty bizarre and extremely hopeful right?  It doesn’t seem so unreal when you begin to think of how your body fights off other harmful agents.  When pathogenic bacteria infect you, for example, your immune cells are able to detect the bacteria and recognize it as foreign.  In a matter of a few days your immune system is fully activated, innate cells are being rapidly recruited to the site of infection and sending signals to the rest of your body to alert that an infection is occurring.  Meanwhile your T cells become activated and divide like crazy and migrate rapidly to the site of infection to help exterminate the bacteria.  In addition, some of these responsive T cells live essentially forever as memory T cells, so that if and when that same bacteria infects you, you are better prepared with T cells that remember that bacteria and kill it more quickly than the first time. 
If you apply this same concept to eradicating a cancerous tumor, by having T cells that could recognize tumor cells and kill them, you could develop a therapy that would lessen the requirement of using painful chemicals and drugs to solely fight cancer and circumvent rejection issues since the treatment is using the patient’s own cells to kill the tumor (versus bone marrow transplant from another person, where graft-verse-host disease is a possible danger).
            So how did June and his research team do this?  They engineered a gene-construct in the lab consisting of an extracellular domain that recognizes a protein only expressed by B cells (CD19) fused to an intracellular signaling component of the T cell receptor (TCR).  With this strategy, T cells would be able to recognize B cells, become activated, proliferate, and subsequently kill their targeted B cell.  This sort of genetic engineering is a forte of June’s laboratory and is called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) generation.  The clinical trial was appropriately titled "CART19" (CAR+ T cells for CD19). 
            By transducing the CLL patients’ isolated T cells with a viral vector containing this CAR, then injecting these CAR+ cells into the CLL patients, they found that theengineered T cells expanded >1000-fold in vivo, trafficked to bone marrow, and continued to express functional CARs at high levels for at least 6 months …moreover, a portion of these cells persisted as memory CAR+ T cells…  The authors of the study explain that these memory B-cell reactive T cells “may provide a mechanism for CAR memory by means of “self-vaccination/boosting” and, therefore, long-term tumor immunosurveillance”! This exciting research really puts forth the idea that we are on the right track to discovering the ultimate treatment for cancer patients- a treatment that consists of as little pain, money and tumor re-occurrence as possible.  Utilizing the body’s own defense system to fight cancer, with the potential ability to fight the tumor over and over again without further injections and drugs, may represent an ideal cancer therapy!
The patients who participated in this study all had “advanced, chemotherapy-resistant CLL”.  Two of three patients in the study are in remission 10 months post CART19 infusion; the third still has the disease. The researchers acknowledge that chemotherapy still plays in a role in fighting tumors, and that chemo is likely to have played a role in the success of their CART19 therapy.  It is important to consider, that this research-however exciting-is still in the very early stages of development and much is left unknown including: 1) how long these CAR+ memory T cells live for and if their effector function is still in tact, 2) how healthy B cells are affected by this therapy, since the targeted protein, CD19, is expressed by all B cells-tumor and healthy ones and 3) if there are any long-term side effects of using the particular virus vector used in this study.  Importantly, all three CART19 patients are still being monitored to further address these questions. Kalos M, Levine BL, Porter DL, Katz S, Grupp SA, Bagg A, & June CH (2011). T cells with chimeric antigen receptors have potent antitumor effects and can establish memory in patients with advanced leukemia. Science translational medicine, 3 (95) PMID: 21832238

  Porter DL, Levine BL, Kalos M, Bagg A, & June CH (2011). Chimeric antigen receptor modified T cells in chronic lymphoid leukemia. The New England journal of medicine,   365 (8), 725-33 PMID: 21830940


  1. Thanks for including this groundbreaking study on leukemia on your blog! We wanted to bring to your attention that funding for this study was provided by the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT), the nation's only non-profit dedicated to cancer gene and cell therapy research. ACGT is currently funding 17 other human clinical trials and has provided $22 million in research grants in the past 10 years. You can learn more by viewing ACGT's news release on this subject at:

    1. Hello,

      This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. T cells are essential regulators of adaptive immune responses and inflammatory diseases, which play an important role in establishing and maximizing the capabilities of the immune system and specialized in terms of the cytokines and effector molecules that they express on their membranes or secrete and their discrete effector functions...

      CD4 Antibody

  2. this is also belonging to cancer field. and cancer has persecuted human beings for a century and scientists are seeking approaches to treat this gust, such as cancer biomarker. T cells, receiving molecular ammo, can kill cancer is also a big step in this field.

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  4. Journal of Immunology Research and Therapy is an international peer reviewed journal that covers the studies of all aspects of the immune system in all organisms.Immunology Research and Therapy