Nav: Home

'Rewired' cells show promise for targeted cancer therapy

December 12, 2016

A major challenge in truly targeted cancer therapy is cancer's suppression of the immune system. Northwestern University synthetic biologists now have developed a general method for "rewiring" immune cells to flip this action around.

"Right now, one of the most promising frontiers in cancer treatment is immunotherapy -- harnessing the immune system to combat a wide range of cancers," said Joshua N. Leonard, the senior author of the study. "The simple cell rewiring we've done ultimately could help overcome immunosuppression at the tumor site, one of the most intransigent barriers to making progress in this field."

When cancer is present, molecules secreted at tumor sites render many immune cells inactive. The Northwestern researchers genetically engineered human immune cells to sense the tumor-derived molecules in the immediate environment and to respond by becoming more active, not less.

This customized function, which is not observed in nature, is clinically attractive and relevant to cancer immunotherapy. The general approach for rewiring cellular input and output functions should be useful in fighting other diseases, not just cancer.

"This work is motivated by clinical observations, in which we may know why something goes wrong in the body, and how this may be corrected, but we lack the tools to translate those insights into a therapy," Leonard said. "With the technology we have developed, we can first imagine a cell function we wish existed, and then our approach enables us to build -- by design -- a cell that carries out that function."

Currently, scientists and engineers lack the ability to program cells to exhibit all the functions that, from a clinical standpoint, physicians might wish them to exhibit, such as becoming active only when next to a tumor. This study addresses that gap, Leonard said.

Leonard, who focuses on integrating synthetic biology into medicine, is an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. He is a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

The research comes out of a rich collaboration that Leonard's team has with clinical oncologists, immunologists and basic cancer researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as well as other synthetic biologists.

The study, to be published Dec. 12 by the journal Nature Chemical Biology, provides details of the first synthetic biology technology enabling researchers to rewire how mammalian cells sense and respond to a broad class of physiologically relevant cues. Kelly A. Schwarz, a graduate student in Leonard's research group, is the study's first author.

"This work is exciting because it addresses a key technical gap in the field," Schwarz said. "There is great promise for using engineered cells as programmable therapies, and it is going to take technologies such as this to truly realize that goal."

Starting with human T cells in culture, the research team genetically engineered changes in the cells' input and output, including adding a sensing mode, and built a cell that is relevant to cancer immunotherapy.

Specifically, the engineered cells sense vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein found in tumors that directly manipulates and in some ways suppresses the immune response. When the rewired cells sense VEGF in their environment, these cells, instead of being suppressed, respond by secreting interleukin 2 (IL-2), a protein that stimulates nearby immune cells to become activated specifically at that site. Normal unmodified T cells do not produce IL-2 when exposed to VEGF, so the engineered behavior is both useful and novel.

This work was carried out in cells in culture, and the technology next will be tested in animal studies.

While Leonard's team has initially focused on the application of this cell programming technology to enabling cancer immunotherapy, it can be readily extended to distinct cellular engineering goals and therapeutic applications. Leonard's "parts" are also intentionally modular, such that they can be combined with other synthetic biology innovations to write more sophisticated cellular programs.

"To truly accelerate the rate at which we can translate scientific insights into treatments, we need technologies that let us rapidly try out new ideas, in this case by building living cells that manifest a desired biological function," said Leonard, who also is a founding member of the Center for Synthetic Biology and a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.

"Our technology also provides a powerful new tool for fundamental research, enabling biologists to test otherwise untestable theories about how cells coordinate their functions in complex, multicellular organisms," he said.

Related to this research, Leonard was an invited conferee at a special meeting held in October, "Systems and Synthetic Biology for Designing Rational Cancer Immunotherapies," as part of President Obama and Vice President Biden's Cancer Moonshot Initiative.
-end-
The paper is titled "Rewiring Human Cellular Input-Output Using Modular Extracellular Sensors." In addition to Leonard and Schwarz, other authors are Nichole M. Daringer and Taylor B. Dolberg, both of Northwestern.

Northwestern University

Related Cancer Articles:

Stress in cervical cancer patients associated with higher risk of cancer-specific mortality
Psychological stress was associated with a higher risk of cancer-specific mortality in women diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Cancer-sniffing dogs 97% accurate in identifying lung cancer, according to study in JAOA
The next step will be to further fractionate the samples based on chemical and physical properties, presenting them back to the dogs until the specific biomarkers for each cancer are identified.
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers identify one way T cell function may fail in cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center researchers have discovered a mechanism by which one type of immune cell, CD8+ T cells, can become dysfunctional, impeding its ability to seek and kill cancer cells.
More cancer survivors, fewer cancer specialists point to challenge in meeting care needs
An aging population, a growing number of cancer survivors, and a projected shortage of cancer care providers will result in a challenge in delivering the care for cancer survivors in the United States if systemic changes are not made.
New cancer vaccine platform a potential tool for efficacious targeted cancer therapy
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a solution in the form of a cancer vaccine platform for improving the efficacy of oncolytic viruses used in cancer treatment.
American Cancer Society outlines blueprint for cancer control in the 21st century
The American Cancer Society is outlining its vision for cancer control in the decades ahead in a series of articles that forms the basis of a national cancer control plan.
Oncotarget: Cancer pioneer employs physics to approach cancer in last research article
In the cover article of Tuesday's issue of Oncotarget, James Frost, MD, PhD, Kenneth Pienta, MD, and the late Donald Coffey, Ph.D., use a theory of physical and biophysical symmetry to derive a new conceptualization of cancer.
Health indicators for newborns of breast cancer survivors may vary by cancer type
In a study published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers from the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center analyzed health indicators for children born to young breast cancer survivors in North Carolina.
Few women with history of breast cancer and ovarian cancer take a recommended genetic test
More than 80 percent of women living with a history of breast or ovarian cancer at high-risk of having a gene mutation have never taken the test that can detect it.
Radiotherapy for invasive breast cancer increases the risk of second primary lung cancer
East Asian female breast cancer patients receiving radiotherapy have a higher risk of developing second primary lung cancer.
More Cancer News and Cancer Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Accessing Better Health
Essential health care is a right, not a privilege ... or is it? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can give everyone access to a healthier way of life, despite who you are or where you live. Guests include physician Raj Panjabi, former NYC health commissioner Mary Bassett, researcher Michael Hendryx, and neuroscientist Rachel Wurzman.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#544 Prosperity Without Growth
The societies we live in are organised around growth, objects, and driving forward a constantly expanding economy as benchmarks of success and prosperity. But this growing consumption at all costs is at odds with our understanding of what our planet can support. How do we lower the environmental impact of economic activity? How do we redefine success and prosperity separate from GDP, which politicians and governments have focused on for decades? We speak with ecological economist Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Propserity, and author of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab