‘Super T Cells’ Engineered for Optimal Performance Drive New Roswell Park Gene-Therapy Approach

Institute begins clinical study open to patients with several cancer types, involving a unique immunotherapy strategy
Thursday, November 2, 2017
Highlights: 
Roswell Park launches first-ever clinical trial of new adoptive T cell therapy
Two-step gene modification distinguishes approach pioneered at Roswell Park
Study now underway in patients with several types of advanced cancer

Researchers at Roswell Park Cancer Institute have initiated a clinical trial based on a unique two-pronged strategy for arming the immune system to more effectively attack cancer cells. Patients treated through this early-stage clinical trial, which is available only at Roswell Park, will receive one-time injections of their own cells —“super T cells” reprogrammed to make them more effective at targeting tumor cells, and armed with an added element to help them to evade one of cancer’s most resilient defenses.

From left, Drs. Richard Koya, Kunle Odunsi and Thinle Chodon with genetically engineered T cells to be given to a patient as part of a new adoptive cell therapy clinical trial at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The “TGF beta” clinical trial, named for one of the elements that distinguish this approach, is part of an emerging class of immunotherapies that employ adoptive cell transfer. These so-called “living drugs” — injected T cells genetically modified to better recognize and kill tumor cells through a perpetual process of cell renewal and expansion — are revolutionizing cancer treatment, with the first two FDA approvals of such gene-altering therapies occurring in just the last two months. But efforts to develop adoptive T cell therapies for solid tumors have hit upon a number of challenges; the only gene therapies to show significant benefit for patients have been in liquid tumors — forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

“What we see over and over in trying to treat some of the most aggressive and intractable cancers, including many lung, brain, ovarian, breast, melanoma and sarcoma tumors, is that the tumor fights back. The area around the tumor is a hostile environment that disarms immune cells and deprives them of the ability to kill tumor cells. We have identified a major pathway by which these kinds of cells try to disable immune cells, and formulated a strategy for exploiting that weakness,” says the study’s principal investigator, Kunle Odunsi, MD, PhD, FRCOG, FACOG, Deputy Director and Chair of Gynecology at Roswell Park, and Executive Director of its Center for Immunotherapy.

The roughly 24 patients to be treated through this phase I/IIa study will have their T cells removed in a process that’s similar to platelet removal, and takes about two hours. Approximately one week later, they will receive a single injection of those T cells, now modified with two strategic enhancements: insertion of one gene that forces them to produce a T cell receptor (TCR) that hones in on the target antigen, NY-ESO-1, and another that blocks a protein that allows cancers to grow and suppress the immune system — transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta).

“It’s an approach that allows the immune system to be on the offense and on the defense at the same time,” says the study’s scientific lead, Richard Koya, MD, PhD, Associate Director of the Roswell Park Center for Immunotherapy. “First we arm the T cells with a receptor to help them hunt down the cancer cells, and then we add a TGF-beta blocker to suppress the suppressor. The result of this two-step gene modification — forcing expression of the receptor for NY-ESO-1, and adding a blocker gene to nullify the effect of TGF-beta — is a super T cell engineered to both more effectively kill target cancer cells and to resist the tumor’s attack.”

While preclinical studies suggest that this treatment may be effective, long-lasting and well-tolerated, the study now underway at Roswell Park marks the first time this strategy will be assessed in humans.

It is also the first time a Roswell Park team has produced a genetically engineered T cell therapy in-house. The immune cells that play such a central role in this therapy are never frozen or shipped, as they are drawn, re-engineered and reinjected within Roswell Park facilities. Many Roswell Park Center for Immunotherapy (CFI) collaborators are involved in this effort, including Thinle Chodon, MD, PhD, Director of Translational Research Operations within the CFI, and Junko Matsuzaki, PhD, Director of the Immune Analysis Facility within the Center.

For more information on this study (ClinicalTrials.gov identifier no. NCT02650986), which is open to adult patients with various types of advanced cancer whose tumors express NY-ESO-1, or other clinical trials available at Roswell Park, please call 1-877-ASK-RPCI (1-877-275-7724) or send an e-mail inquiry to ASKRPCI@roswellpark.org.

The work is funded by grants from the National Cancer Institute (project nos. R01CA164333 and P30CA016056) and the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation.

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The mission of Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) is to understand, prevent and cure cancer. Founded in 1898, RPCI is one of the first cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and remains the only facility with this designation in Upstate New York. The Institute is a member of the prestigious National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of the nation’s leading cancer centers; maintains affiliate sites; and is a partner in national and international collaborative programs. For more information, visit www.roswellpark.org, call 1-877-ASK-RPCI (1-877-275-7724) or email askrpci@roswellpark.org. Follow Roswell Park on Facebook and Twitter.

Media Contact: 

Annie Deck-Miller, Senior Media Relations Manager
716-845-8593; annie.deck-miller@roswellpark.org