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Posts Tagged ‘CAR-T’

Live Notes from @AACR’s #cbi16 Meeting on Precision Medicine: 5:10PM Big Idea A survivor’s Story

Tom Whitehead, father of Emily, CHOP’S first CAR-T success story

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

  • Emily Whitehead was 5 years old when came to UPENN and CHOP (2010) with unresponsive leukemia
  • she was healthy up to day she was diagnosed and went to Hershey Medical Center and recieved diagnosis of CLL (came in with 21 bruises, symptom of leukemia)
  • parents told her that it would be the roughest time of her life but they would always tell her the truth about what would happen
  • she started to have relapsed disease
  • Dr. Sue Reingold at CHOP said to get transplant but could do at Hershey
  • Feb. 2012 thought got a matching donor but up to May did not find one, they wanted to do new rounds of chemo but Emily did not want that and CHOP suggested a new drug but they felt it was not right for her

 

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Steroids, Inflammation, and CAR-T Therapy [6.3.8] (UPDATED)

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, Ph.D.

UPDATED: 08/31/2020 (CRISPR edited CAR-T clinical trials)

Word Cloud by Daniel Menzin

Corticosteroids have been used as anticancer agents since the 1940s, with activity reported in a wide variety of solid tumors, including breast and prostate cancer, and the lymphoid hematologic malignancies. They are commonly found in regimens for acute lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, myeloma, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

A great review on the mechanism of action of prednisone’s antitumoral activity is seen in

Corticosteroids in the Treatment of Neoplasms Lorraine I. McKay, PhD and John A. Cidlowski, PhD. in Holland-Frei Cancer Medicine. 6th edition.

It was first discovered that cortisone caused tumor regression in a transplantable mouse lymphosarcoma,81 a finding soon extended to a wide variety of murine lymphatic tumors. The effects of corticosteroids were also evaluated on many nonendocrine and nonlymphoid transplantable rodent tumors. Pharmacologic doses of steroid inhibited growth of various tumor systems.82 Tissue culture studies confirmed that lymphoid cells were the most sensitive to glucocorticoids, and responded to treatment with decreases in DNA, ribonucleic acid (RNA), and protein synthesis.83 Studies of proliferating human leukemic lymphoblasts supported the hypothesis that glucocorticoids have preferential lymphocytolytic effects. The mechanism of action was initially thought to be caused by impaired energy use via decreased glucose transport and/or phosphorylation; it was later discovered that glucocorticoids induce apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in certain lymphoid cell populations.84,85

–For review on corticosteroids in cancer therapy see more at: http://www.cancernetwork.com/review-article/corticosteroids-advanced-cancer#sthash.IwHbekuI.dpuf

However, as Dana Farber’s Dr. George Canellos, M.D. ponders in Can MOPP be replaced in the treatment of advanced Hodgkin’s disease? Semin Oncol. Canellos GP1. 1990 Feb;17(1 Suppl 2):2-6., many dose-limiting toxicities occur with MOPP (mechlorethamine, vincristine, procarbazine, prednisone) therapy used in advanced Hodgkin’s disease.  Although, at the time, he generally was looking to establish combination therapies with less side effect, the advent of more personalized therapies as well as immunotherapies may indeed replace the older regimens for B-cell malignancies and Hodgkin’s disease, and their panels of toxicities.

Short-term side effects of prednisone (Cancer.gov prednisone description with side effects) as with all glucocorticoids, include high blood glucose levels (especially in patients with diabetes mellitus or on other medications that increase blood glucose, such as tacrolimus) and mineralocorticoid effects such as fluid retention.[10] The mineralocorticoid effects of prednisone are minor, which is why it is not used in the management of adrenal insufficiency, unless a more potent mineralocorticoid is administered concomitantly.

Long-term side effects include Cushing’s syndrome, steroid dementia syndrome, truncal weight gain, osteoporosis, glaucoma and cataracts, type II diabetes mellitus, and depression upon dose reduction or cessation.

Therefore the oncology world has been moving toward therapies which are more selective with less dose-limiting toxicities (e.g. Rituximab), and are looking to CAR-T therapies as a possible replacement for standard chemotherapeutic regimens. However, as with prednisone, there have been serious adverse events in some CAR-T clinical trials. Luckily clinicians, as discussed below, have found supportive therapies to alleviate the most severe side effects to CAR-T.

This section will be refer to supportive therapies as those adjuvant therapy given to alleviate patient discomfort, reduce toxicities and adverse event, or support patient well-being during their course of chemotherapy, not adjuvant therapy to enhance antitumoral effect.

For more background information of CAR-T therapies and related issues please see my previous post

NIH Considers Guidelines for CAR-T therapy: Report from Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee

The following is a brief re-post of some of the important points for reference to this new posting.

1. Evolution of Chimeric Antigen Receptors

Early evidence had suggested that adoptive transfer of tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes, after depletion of circulating lymphocytes, could result in a clinical response in some tumor patients however developments showed autologous T-cells (obtained from same patient) could be engineered to express tumor-associated antigens (TAA) and replace the TILS in the clinical setting.

A brief history of construction of 2nd and 3rd generation CAR-T cells given by cancer.gov:

http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/research-updates/2013/CAR-T-Cells

cartdiagrampic

Differences between  second- and third-generation chimeric antigen receptor T cells. (Adapted by permission from the American Association for Cancer Research: Lee, DW et al. The Future Is Now: Chimeric Antigen Receptors as New Targeted Therapies for Childhood Cancer. Clin Cancer Res; 2012;18(10); 2780–90. doi:10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-11-1920)

Constructing a CAR T Cell (from cancer.gov)

The first efforts to engineer T cells to be used as a cancer treatment began in the early 1990s. Since then, researchers have learned how to produce T cells that express chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) that recognize specific targets on cancer cells.

The T cells are genetically modified to produce these receptors. To do this, researchers use viral vectors that are stripped of their ability to cause illness but that retain the capacity to integrate into cells’ DNA to deliver the genetic material needed to produce the T-cell receptors.

The second- and third-generation CARs typically consist of a piece of monoclonal antibody, called a single-chain variable fragment (scFv), that resides on the outside of the T-cell membrane and is linked to stimulatory molecules (Co-stim 1 and Co-stim 2) inside the T cell. The scFv portion guides the cell to its target antigen. Once the T cell binds to its target antigen, the stimulatory molecules provide the necessary signals for the T cell to become fully active. In this fully active state, the T cells can more effectively proliferate and attack cancer cells.

2. Consideration for Design of Trials and Mitigating Toxicities

  • Early Toxic effectsCytokine Release Syndrome– The effectiveness of CART therapy has been manifested by release of high levels of cytokines resulting in fever and inflammatory sequelae. One such cytokine, interleukin 6, has been attributed to this side effect and investigators have successfully used an IL6 receptor antagonist, tocilizumab (Acterma™), to alleviate symptoms of cytokine release syndrome (see review Adoptive T-cell therapy: adverse events and safety switches by Siok-Keen Tey).
  • Early Toxic effects – Over-activation of CAR T-cells; mitigation by dose escalation strategy (as authors in reference [3] proposed). Most trials give billions of genetically modified cells to a patient.
  • Late Toxic Effectslong-term depletion of B-cells . For example CART directing against CD19 or CD20 on B cells may deplete the normal population of CD19 or CD20 B-cells over time; possibly managed by IgG supplementation

References

  1. Ertl HC, Zaia J, Rosenberg SA, June CH, Dotti G, Kahn J, Cooper LJ, Corrigan-Curay J, Strome SE: Considerations for the clinical application of chimeric antigen receptor T cells: observations from a recombinant DNA Advisory Committee Symposium held June 15, 2010. Cancer research 2011, 71(9):3175-3181.
  2. Morgan RA, Yang JC, Kitano M, Dudley ME, Laurencot CM, Rosenberg SA: Case report of a serious adverse event following the administration of T cells transduced with a chimeric antigen receptor recognizing ERBB2. Molecular therapy : the journal of the American Society of Gene Therapy 2010, 18(4):843-851.
  3. Kandalaft LE, Powell DJ, Jr., Coukos G: A phase I clinical trial of adoptive transfer of folate receptor-alpha redirected autologous T cells for recurrent ovarian cancer. Journal of translational medicine 2012, 10:157.

3. Case Reports of Adverse Events and Their Amelioration During CAR-T Therapy

CAR-T Therapy have Had reports of Serious Adverse Events

From FierceBiotech UPDATED: Two deaths force MSK to hit the brakes on engineered T cell cancer study

April 6, 2014 | By John Carroll

Safety concerns forced investigators at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to suspend patient recruitment for an early-stage study of a closely watched approach to reengineering the immune system to fight cancer. Several days ago MSK updated a site on clinicaltrials.gov to note that it was halting recruitment for a small study using T cells reengineered with chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) against CD19-positive B cells for aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma, triggering concerns about the potential fallout at Juno Therapeutics, the biotech formed to commercialize the effort. And Sunday evening representatives for MSK revealed at the meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in San Diego that the deaths of two patients spurred investigators to rethink the trial protocol on recruitment, revamping the patient profile to account for the threat of comorbidities while adjusting the dose “based on the extent of disease at the time of treatment.”

For more on this story please see

Source: http://www.fiercebiotech.com/story/memorial-sloan-kettering-hits-brakes-engineered-t-cell-cancer-study/2014-04-06

Keynote presentation by Carl H. June, recipient of The Richard V. Smalley MD 2013 Award

As reported in 2013 in Highlights and summary of the 28th annual meeting of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer by Paolo A Ascierto1, David H Munn2, Anna K Palucka34 and Paul M Sondel in Journal of ImmunoTherapy of Cancer

Since 2005, SITC honors a luminary in the field who has significantly contributed to the advancement of cancer immunotherapy research by presenting the annual Richard V. Smalley MD Memorial Award, which is associated with the Smalley keynote lecture at the Annual SITC meeting. The awardee this year Carl H. June of the University of Pennsylvania, has led innovative translational research for over 25 years, with the most recent focus being the development of the Chimeric Antigen Receptor modified T-cell (CART) approach. Carl June summarized how the past 15 years of progress have expanded upon the original concept presented by Zelig Eshhar [4], in which variable regions of tumor-reactive monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) (VH and VL) are linked to transmembrane and signaling domains of T cell activating molecules to create membrane based receptors with specificity for the tumor antigen recognized by the original mAb [4]. These receptors can be transfected into T cells, for example with lentiviruses. Pre-clinical work demonstrated how CD3-ζ and 41BB signaling components enhanced proliferation and survival of T cells in hypoxic conditions. The initial clinical work has been done with CART reactive to CD-19 on malignant B cells, with progress particularly in chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in adults and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children [5,6]. As of the SITC meeting, CarlJune’s team had treated 35 patients with CLL and 20 with ALL. Of the 20 with ALL, ½ had relapsed after allogeneic BMT. Of these 20 children, 17 were in complete remission, and with persistent B cell aplasia; documenting the persistent effects of the CART cells. Toxicities included the persistent B cell aplasia and profound tumor lysis and cytokine storm, seen 1–2 weeks into the treatment for ALL. This cytokine storm has been ameliorated by using anti-IL6 mAb. The B cell aplasia, while undesired, is acceptable, as patients can receive passive replacement of IgG, thus making their B cells “expendable”. These CART cells can traffic into the CNS. In ALL patients, it appears that each individual CART cell (or its progeny) can destroy 1000 tumor cells. Ongoing efforts in CarlJune’s program, and at other centers, are now moving into analyses of CART reactive with other tumor targets, by using mAbs that recognize antigens expressed on other tumors. Among these are EGFR on glioblastoma, PSMA on prostate cancer, mesothelin on ovarian cancer, HER2 on breast (and other) cancers, and several other targets. Because some of these targets are also expressed on normal tissues that are “not expendable”, novel approaches are being developed to decrease the potency or longevity of the CART effect, to decrease potential toxicity. This includes generating “short lived” CART cells by inducing CAR expression with short-lived RNA, rather than transfecting with a DNA construct that remains permanently.

In T-Cell Immunotherapy: Looking Forward Molecular Therapy (2014); 22 9, 1564–1574. doi:10.1038/mt.2014.148 many of the leading CAR-T clinicians and investigators reported on some of the adverse events related o CAR-T therapy including

  • 40 severe adverse events (SAE) had been reported from 2010 to 2013.
  • B-cell aplasia
  • Systemic inflammatory release syndrome (CRS) {the most sever toxicity seen}
  • Tumor lysis syndrome
  • CNS toxicity
  • Macrophage activation syndrome

According to the investigators the systemic inflammatory release syndrome (CRS) is the most severe toxicity seen

The most commonly reported adverse event is CRS,49 with about three-quarters of the patients with CRS requiring admission to an intensive care unit. In the case of CAR therapy, the onset of CRS is related to the particular signaling domain in the CAR, with early-onset CRS in the first several days after infusion related to CARs that encode a CD28 signaling domain.4,16 By contrast, CARs encoding a 4-1BB signaling domain tend to have delayed-onset CRS (range, 7 to 50 days) after CAR T-cell infusion.6 CRS has also been reported after the infusion of TCR-modified T cells, with onset typically five to seven days after infusion. The development of CRS is often, but not invariably, associated with clinically beneficial tumor regression. Several cytokines have been reported to be elevated in the serum—most commonly, interferon (IFN)-γ, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α, and interleukin (IL)-6. Management of CRS has included supportive care, corticosteroids, etanercept, tocilizumab, and alemtuzumab. The role of suicide genes in the management of CRS remains unknown.50

This supportive therapy have now been included in all protocols now and sites are engaged in developing pharmacovigilance protocol development for CAR-T therapy.

UPDATED 08/31/2020

The following articles discuss the use of the CRISPR Cas9 system to improve the efficacy and reduce immune tolerance and rejection of engineered CAR-T therapies and the evolution of the CAR-T therapy in clinical trials for lung cancer and leukemias.

CRISPR-engineered immune cells reach the bedside

UPDATED 10/04/2021 (Advances in CAR-T therapy for solid tumors)

The following contains a curation of the latest advances on CAR-T therapy for solid tumors, which has been a challenge for the field.

NK cells expressing a chimeric activating receptor eliminate MDSCs and rescue impaired CAR-T cell activity against solid tumors

From: Parihar, R., Rivas, C., Huynh, M., Omer, B., Lapteva, N., Metelitsa, L. S., Gottschalk, S. M., & Rooney, C. M. (2019). NK Cells Expressing a Chimeric Activating Receptor Eliminate MDSCs and Rescue Impaired CAR-T Cell Activity against Solid Tumors. Cancer immunology research7(3), 363–375. https://doi.org/10.1158/2326-6066.CIR-18-0572

Abstract

Solid tumors are refractory to cellular immunotherapies in part because they contain suppressive immune effectors such as myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) that inhibit cytotoxic lymphocytes. Strategies to reverse the suppressive tumor microenvironment (TME) should also attract and activate immune effectors with antitumor activity. To address this need, we developed gene-modified natural killer (NK) cells bearing a chimeric receptor in which the activating receptor NKG2D is fused to the cytotoxic ζ-chain of the T-cell receptor (NKG2D.ζ). NKG2D.ζ–NK cells target MDSCs, which overexpress NKG2D ligands within the TME. We examined the ability of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells to eliminate MDSCs in a xenograft TME model and improve the antitumor function of tumor-directed chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-modified T cells. We show that NKG2D.ζ–NK cells are cytotoxic against MDSCs, but spare NKG2D ligand-expressing normal tissues. NKG2D.ζ–NK cells, but not unmodified NK cells, secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines in response to MDSCs at the tumor site and improve infiltration and antitumor activity of subsequently infused CAR-T cells, even in tumors for which an immunosuppressive TME is an impediment to treatment. Unlike endogenous NKG2D, NKG2D.ζ is not susceptible to TME-mediated down-modulation and thus maintains its function even within suppressive microenvironments. As clinical confirmation, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells generated from patients with neuroblastoma killed autologous intra-tumoral MDSCs capable of suppressing CAR-T function. A combination therapy for solid tumors that includes both NKG2D.ζ–NK cells and CAR-T cells may improve responses over therapies based on CAR-T cells alone.

INTRODUCTION

T lymphocytes can be engineered to target tumor-associated antigens by forced expression of CARs (). Although successful when directed against leukemia-associated antigens such as CD19 (), CAR-T cell therapy for solid tumors has been less effective, with best responses in patients with minimal disease (). Solid tumors recruit inhibitory cells such as myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSCs) (). These immature myeloid cells are a component of innate immunity and strengthen the suppressive TME (). The frequency of circulating or intra-tumoral MDSCs correlates with cancer stage, disease progression, and resistance to standard chemo- and radio-therapies (). Hence, MDSCs are worth targeting in the quest to enhance CAR-T cell efficacy against solid tumors.

Natural killer (NK) cells, a lymphoid component of the innate immune system, produce MHC-unrestricted cytotoxicity and secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines (). NK cells also modulate the activity of antigen-presenting myeloid cells within lymphoid organs, and recruit and activate effector T cells at sites of inflammation (). NK cells express NKG2D, a cytotoxicity receptor that is activated by non-classical MHC molecules expressed on cells stressed by events such as DNA damage, hypoxia, or viral infection (). NKG2D ligands are overexpressed on several solid tumors and on tumor-infiltrating MDSCs (). NK cells, therefore, could alter the TME in favor of an antitumor response by eliminating suppressive elements such as MDSCs. However, the NKG2D cytotoxic adapter molecule, DAP10, is downregulated by suppressive molecules of the TME, such as TGFβ (), limiting the antitumor functions of NK cells.

To overcome the repressive effect of the solid TME on NKG2D function, we used a retroviral vector to modify NK cells with a chimeric NKG2D receptor (NKG2D.ζ) comprising the extracellular domain of the native NKG2D molecule fused to the intracellular cytotoxic ζ-chain of the T-cell receptor (). We hypothesized that primary human NK cells expressing NKG2D.ζ (NKG2D.ζ–NK cells) would maintain NKG2D.ζ expression within the suppressive TME, kill NKG2D ligand-expressing MDSCs, secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines, and recruit and activate effector cells, including CAR-T cells, derived from the adaptive immune system. These benefits are not attainable from NK cells expressing the native NKG2D receptor as its functions are down-modulated in the TME. Here we show that when NK cells express NKG2D.ζ, immune suppression is sufficiently countered to enable tumor-specific CAR-T cells to persist within the TME and eradicate otherwise resistant tumors.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

Cytokines, cell lines, and antibodies.

Recombinant human interleukin (IL)2 was obtained from National Cancer Institute Biologic Resources Branch (Frederick, MD). Recombinant human IL6, GM-CSF, IL7, and IL15 were purchased from Peprotech (Rocky Hill, NJ, USA). The human neuroblastoma cell line LAN-1 was purchased from American Type Culture Collection (Manassas, VA, USA) and cultured in DMEM culture medium supplemented with 2 mM L-glutamine (Gibco-BRL) and 10% FBS (Hyclone, Waltham, MA, USA). The human CML cell line K562 was purchased from American Type Culture Collection and cultured in complete-RPMI culture medium composed of RPMI-1640 medium (Hyclone) supplemented with 2 mM L-glutamine and 10% FBS. A modified version of parental K562 cells, genetically modified to express a membrane-bound version of IL15 and 41BB-ligand, K562-mb15–41BB-L, was kindly provided by Dr. Dario Campana (National University of Singapore). All cell lines were verified by either genetic or flow cytometry-based methods (LAN-1 and K562 authenticated by ATCC in 2009) and tested for mycoplasma contamination monthly via MycoAlert (Lonza) mycoplasma enzyme detection kit (last mycoplastma testing of LAN-1, K562 parental line, and K562-mb15–41BB-L on November 2, 2018; all negative). All cell lines were used within one month of thawing from early-passage (< 3 passages of original vial) lots.

CAR-encoding retroviral vectors.

The construction of the SFG-retroviral vector encoding GD2-CAR.41BB.ζ, as shown in Supplementary Fig. S1A, was previously described (). The SFG-retroviral vector encoding NKG2D.ζ, an internal ribosomal entry site (IRES), and truncated CD19 (tCD19), was generated by sub-cloning NKG2D.ζ from a retroviral vector () kindly provided by Dr. Charles L. Sentman (Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, Hanover, NH, USA) into pSFG.IRES.tCD19 (). RD114-speudotyped viral particles were produced by transient transfection in 293T cells, as previously described ().

Expansion and retroviral transduction of human NK and T cells.

Human NK cells were activated, transduced with retroviral constructs (Fig. 1A) and expanded as previously described by our laboratory (). Briefly, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) obtained from healthy donors under Baylor College of Medicine IRB-approved protocols, were cocultured with irradiated (100 Gy) K562-mb15–41BB-L at a 1:10 (NK cell:irradiated tumor cell) ratio in G-Rex® cell culture devices (Wilson Wolf, St. Paul, MN, USA) for 4 days in Stem Cell Growth Medium (CellGenix) supplemented with 10% FBS and 500 IU/mL IL2. Cell suspensions on day 4 (containing 50–70% expanded/activated NK cells) were transduced with SFG-based retroviral vectors, as previously described (). The transduced cell population was then subjected to secondary expansion to generate adequate cell numbers for experiments in G-Rex® devices at the same NK cell:irradiated tumor cell ratio with 100 IU/mL IL2. This 17-day human gene-modified NK cell protocol resulted in > 97% pure CD56+/CD3 NK cell population with avg. 77.4% ± 18.2% (n = 25) of NK cells transduced with the construct of interest. For most experiments, transduced NK cells were purified to > 95% by magnetic column selection of truncated CD19 selection marker-positive cells.

 
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NKG2D.ζ–NK cells expand and kill ligand-expressing targets.

(A) Schematic of SFG-based retroviral vector constructs for transduction of human NK cells. (B) Human NK cells were expanded as described in Methods and percentage of CD56+/CD3 NK cells at time of retroviral transduction (day 4) is shown. Expanded NK cells (red circle in A) purified via depletion of CD3+ cells were transduced with NKG2D.ζ retroviral vector or empty vector control (referred to as “unmodified”), and transduction efficiencies are shown inset. (C) NKG2D expression on NK cells (MFI, inset) was assessed with isotype antibody as control. Non-transduced NK cells exhibited similar NKG2D expression to empty vector-transduced NK cells. * p = 0.003 vs. unmodified condition. (D) Expression of NKG2D (absolute MFI on y-axis) on NK cells from each donor (n = 25) transduced with either empty vector or NKG2D.ζ construct was determined by flow cytometry. Each pair of data points connected by a line represent cells from a single donor, to confirm surface expression of our chimeric molecule after transduction. Black line with grey block next to each group are mean MFI ± SEM. (E) NKG2D.ζ–NK cell cytotoxicity against K562 and LAN-1 tumor targets in a 4-hour 51Cr-release assay. Given that K562 and LAN-1 are both NK-sensitive targets, low E:T ratios were utilized to observe differences. Experiment is representative of at least three separate determinations from n = 10 donors. * p < 0.01 vs. unmodified NK cells at same E:T ratio. (F) NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were expanded after transduction culture (as shown in schema), and fold-expansion and cytotoxicity both pre- (day 7) and post- (day 17) secondary expansion were determined.

For production of GD2.CAR-T cells (autologous to MDSCs and NK cells), PBMCs from healthy donors were suspended in T-cell medium (TCM) consisting of RPMI-1640 supplemented with 45% Click’s Medium (Gibco-BRL), 10% FBS, and 2 mM L-glutamine, and cultured in wells pre-coated with CD3 (OKT3, CRL-8001, American Type Culture Collection) and CD28 (Clone CD28.2, BD Biosciences) antibodies for activation. Human IL15 and IL7 were added on day +1, and cells underwent retroviral transduction on day +2, as previously described (). T-cells were used for experiments between days +9 to +14 post-transduction, with phenotype as shown in Supplementary Figs. S1BC.

Induction and enrichment of human MDSCs.

Our method for ex vivo generation of human PBMC-derived MDSCs was derived from published reports (), with slight modifications. Briefly, PBMCs were sequentially depleted of CD25hi-expressing cells and CD3-expressing cells by magnetic column separation (Miltenyi Biotec). Resultant CD25lo/−, CD3 PBMCs were plated at 4×106 cells/mL in complete-RPMI medium with human IL6 and GM-CSF (both at 20 ng/mL) onto 12-well culture plates (Sigma Corning) at 1 mL/well. Plates were incubated for 7 days with medium and cytokines being replenished on days 3 and 5. Resultant cells were harvested by gentle scraping and MDSCs were purified by magnetic selection using CD33 magnetic microbeads (Miltenyi Biotec). Cells were analyzed by multi-color flow cytometry for CD33, CD14, CD15, HLA-DR, CD11b, CD83, and CD163 (BD Biosciences). MDSCs were defined as either monocytic (M-MDSCs; CD14+, HLA-DRlow/−), PMN-MDSCs (CD14, CD15+, CD11b+), or early-stage MDSCs (lineage, HLA-DRlow/−, CD33+), as per published guidelines (). In addition to the above markers, MDSCs were stained for PD-L1, PD-L2, and NKG2D ligands via an NKG2D-Fc chimera (BD Biosciences) followed by FITC-labeled anti-Fc. This pan-ligand staining approach was determined to be the most efficient way to assess NKG2D ligand expression on human MDSCs because (1.) NKG2D ligand expression had not previously been reported for human MDSCs and thus simultaneous evaluation of the eight different NKG2D ligands would have been required, and (2.) we found poor reproducibility in staining patterns using individual commercially-available ligand antibodies, even within the same donor.

In vitro T-cell suppression assay.

T-cell proliferation was assessed using Cell Trace Violet (Thermo Fisher) dye dilution analysis, as per manufacturer’s recommendations. Briefly, 1×105 Cell Trace Violet-labeled T cells (isolated at the time of MDSC generation) were plated onto 96-well plates in the presence of plate-bound 1 μg/mL CD3 and 1 μg/mL CD28 antibodies with 50 IU/mL IL2 in the absence or presence of autologous MDSCs or peripheral blood monocytes (as a myeloid cell control) at 1:1, 4:1 and 8:1 T cell:MDSC ratios. In some experiments, only the 4:1 ratio is shown as this was determined as optimal for assessment of suppression. After 4 days of coculture, T cells were labeled with CD3 antibody and assessed for cell division using Cell Trace Violet dye dilution by flow cytometry. Percent suppression was calculated as follows: [(% proliferating T cells in the absence of MDSCs – % proliferating T cells in presence of MDSCs)/% proliferating T cells in the absence of MDSCs] x 100. Proliferation was defined as % T cells undergoing active division as represented by Cell Trace Violet dilution peaks, as previously described ().

In vitro CAR-T chemotaxis assay.

Transwell 5-μm pore inserts (Corning, Somerset, NJ) for migration experiments were prepared by coating with 0.01% gelatin at 37 °C overnight, followed by 3 μg of human fibronectin (Life Technologies, Grand Island, NY) at 37 °C for 3 hours to mimic endothelial and extracellular matrix components, as previously described (). Briefly, 2×105 purified GD2.CAR-T cells were placed in 100 μL of TCM in the upper chambers of the pre-coated Transwell inserts that were then transferred into wells of a 24-well plate. Culture supernatants (400 μL) from NKG2D.ζ or unmodified NK cells cultured with autologous MDSCs or monocytes, were placed in the lower chambers of the wells. Plain medium or medium supplemented with 1 μg/mL of the T-cell recruiting chemokine, MIG, served as negative and positive controls, respectively. The plates were then incubated for 4 hours at 37 °C with 5% CO2, followed by a 10-minute incubation at 4 °C to loosen any cells adhering to the undersides of the insert membranes. The fluid in the lower chambers was collected separately and migrated cells were counted using trypan blue exclusion. The cells were analyzed for CAR expression by flow cytometry to confirm phenotype of migrated T cells.

In vivo tumor microenvironment model.

12–16 week old female NSG mice were implanted subcutaneously in the dorsal right flank with 1×106 Firefly luciferase(FfLuc)-expressing LAN-1 neuroblastoma cells admixed with 3×105 ex vivo-generated MDSCs, suspended in 100 μL of basement membrane Matrigel (Corning). Matrigel basement membrane was important in keeping tumor and MDSCs confined so as to establish a localized solid TME. 10–14 days later, when tumors measured at least 100 mm3 by caliper measurement, mice were injected intravenously with 5×106 GD2.CAR-T cells. Tumor growth was measured twice weekly by live bioluminescence imaging using the IVIS® system (IVIS, Xenogen Corporation) 10 minutes after 150 mg/kg D-luciferin (Xenogen)/mouse was injected intraperitoneally. In experiments examining the ability of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells to reduce intra-tumoral MDSCs, 1×107 unmodified or NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were injected intravenously when tumors measured at least 100 mm3. At end of experiment, tumors were harvested en bloc, digested ex vivo, and intra-tumoral human MDSCs (CD33+, HLA-DRlow cells) were enumerated by flow cytometry. The absolute number of human MDSCs within a tumor digest was enumerated per mouse (n = 5 mice/group), compared to pre-treatment MDSC numbers, and presented as mean % MDSCs remaining per treatment group. In experiments examining the effects of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells on GD2.CAR-T cell antitumor activity, 5×106 (cell dose chosen to mitigate direct antitumor effects of NK cells) unmodified or NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were injected intravenously 3 days prior to GD2.CAR-T injection. In GD2.CAR-T cell homing experiments, CAR-T were transduced with GFP-luciferase retroviral construct prior to injection into mice bearing unmodified tumor cells (). Mice received 5000 IU human IL2 intraperitoneally three times per week for 3 weeks following NK cell injection to promote NK cell survival in NSG mice (). Tumor size was measured twice weekly with calipers and the mice were imaged for bioluminescence signal from T cells at the same time. Mice were euthanized for excessive tumor burden, as per protocol guidelines. The animal studies protocol was approved by Baylor College of Medicine Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and mice were treated in strict accordance with the institutional guidelines for animal care.

Immunohistochemistry of neuroblastoma xenografts.

On day 32 of in vivo experiments, animals were sacrificed, tumors were harvested and sectioned bluntly ex vivo to separate tumor periphery (outer 1/3 of tumor volume) vs. core (non-necrotic inner 2/3 of tumor volume), and n = 5 sections/tumor sample were analyzed for presence of GD2.CAR-T and NKG2D.ζ–NK cells by H&E and human CD3 and CD57 immunostaining performed by the Human Tissue Acquisition and Pathology Core of Baylor College of Medicine. Lack of CD57 expression on infused GD2.CAR-T was confirmed by flow cytometry prior to administration. CD57 was chosen as the marker for NK cells in tumor tissue in our study because LAN-1 tumors naturally express the prototypical NK marker CD56, truncated CD19 expression was inadequate for in situ staining, and CD57 had previously been used as a marker for tissue-localized activated NK cells (). The number of human CD3+ and CD57+ cells in representative sections of tumors from periphery vs. core of the treatment groups indicated were enumerated per high-powered field (HPF) at 40x magnification and percent of the total number of cells enumerated within tumors found in the periphery vs. core in each treatment group indicated from tumors with and without MDSCs is shown as mean ± SEM of n = 5 sections/periphery or core, n = 5 tumors/group.

Analysis of intra-tumoral MDSCs from patients with neuroblastoma.

Tumor tissue and matched peripheral blood of neuroblastoma patients obtained in the context of a specimen/laboratory study after patient identification had been removed were thawed and analyzed for MDSC subsets by flow cytometry or utilized in in vitro assays, as described in legends or Results. The tissue acquisition protocol was performed after review and approval by the Baylor College of Medicine Institutional Review Board. Briefly, subjects with a diagnosis of high-risk or intermediate-risk neuroblastoma were eligible to participate. Written informed consent, or appropriate assent for participation, in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki was obtained from each subject or subject’s guardian for procurement of patient blood and tumor tissue and for subsequent analyses of stored patient materials.

Statistics.

Data are presented as mean ± SEM of either experimental replicates or number of donors, as indicated. Paired two-tailed t-test was used to determine significance of differences between means with p < 0.05 indicating a significant difference. For in vivo bioluminescence, changes in tumor radiance from baseline at each time point were calculated and compared between groups using two-sample t-test. Multiple group comparisons were conducted via ANOVA via GraphPad Prism v7 software. Survival determined from the time of tumor cell injection was analyzed by Kaplan-Meier and differences in survival between groups were compared by the log-rank test.

RESULTS

NKG2D.ζ NK cells expand and have cytotoxicity against target cells.

To increase killing of NKG2D ligand-expressing MDSCs, we generated primary human NK cells stably expressing NKG2D.ζ and a truncated CD19 (tCD19) marker from a retroviral vector (Fig. 1A). NK cells were expanded from PBMCs obtained from normal donors, transduced with retroviral construct expressing chimeric NKG2D, then cultured for 3 additional days. Transduction efficiency, as measured by the expression of tCD19 on CD56+CD3 NK cells after the additional 3 days, was 71.3 ± 16% (n = 25 normal donors) and produced a 5.4 ± 1.1-fold increase in NKG2D expression on the NK cell surface (Fig. 1BD). NKG2D.ζ–NK cells showed greater cytotoxicity (79.2 ± 5.6%, n = 10 normal donors) against wild-type K562, a highly NK cell-sensitive tumor cell line that naturally expresses NKG2D ligands, than mock vector-transduced (hereafter referred to as, unmodified) NK cells (40.5 ± 2.1%) at 2:1 E:T ratio in a 4-hr cytotoxicity assay (Fig. 1E). In contrast, transgenic NKG2D.ζ expression did not increase NK cell killing of LAN-1 neuroblastoma cells that are marginally NK-sensitive, but lack NKG2D ligands. To determine if in vitro expansion affected the cytotoxic function of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells, we secondarily expanded NKG2D.ζ–NK cells for an additional 10-days (Fig. 1F schema). As seen in Fig. 1F, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells expanded (120 ± 7.3-fold by day 17 of culture; n = 10 donors) similarly to unmodified and non-transduced NK cells and maintained stable cytotoxic function between days 7 and 17 of expansion. Thus, we generated and expanded high numbers of primary human NKG2D.ζ-expressing NK cells capable of cytotoxicity against ligand-expressing targets, even after prolonged culture.

Transgenic NKG2D.ζ is unaffected by TGFβ or soluble NKG2D ligands.

Expression of the native NKG2D receptor on NK cells is down-modulated by tumor-derived TGFβ and soluble NKG2D ligands, both of which are abundant in the TME () and likely impair NK cell function in solid tumors. To determine the effect of TGFβ and soluble NKG2D ligands on NKG2D.ζ receptor expression and function, we cultured NKG2D.ζ–NK cells in the presence of TGFβ or the soluble NKG2D ligands, MICA and MICB, and examined NKG2D expression and NK cytotoxicity after 24-, 48-, and 72-hours. After exposure to TGFβ or soluble MICA/B, unmodified NK cells significantly down-regulated NKG2D (MFI of 25 vs. 95 in non-exposed NK cells at 48 hours) and were less cytotoxic (20 ± 5.1% killing vs. 40 ± 3.7% killing by non-exposed NK cells at 48 hours) to NKG2D ligand-expressing K562 targets (Fig. 2A,B).B). In contrast, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells maintained NKG2D expression and cytotoxicity after exposure to the same concentrations of TGFβ and soluble MICA/B (Fig. 2C,D).D). This lack of sensitivity to down-regulation by these tumor-associated components should benefit the function of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells within the TME.

 
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Transgenic NKG2D.ζ is unaffected by TGFβ or soluble NKG2D ligands.

NKG2D.ζ or unmodified NK cells (n = 5 donors) were cultured in the presence of TGFβ (5 ng/mL) (A, B) or the soluble NKG2D ligands MICA and MICB (C, D) for 24-, 48-, and 72-hours. NKG2D receptor expression was determined by flow cytometry and NK cytotoxicity against K562 targets was assessed in a 4-hr Cr-release assay at an 5:1 E:T ratio using 48-hr exposed NK cells. Viability of transduced NK cells after exposure to TGFβ for 24, 48, and 72 hours, as assessed by 7-AAD vital staining, was > 90%. * p = 0.001 vs. non-TGFβ/MICA-treated NK groups at same time-points.

Human MDSCs express NKG2D ligands and are killed by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells.

To study the effects of human NK cells on autologous MDSCs, we generated human MDSCs by culture of CD3-/CD25lo PBMC with IL6 plus GM-CSF for 7 days, followed by CD33+ selection, as described in the Methods. The phenotypic characterization of these MDSCs and confirmation of their suppressive capacity is shown in Supplementary Fig. S2. Routinely, our ex vivo-generated MDSCs contained monocytic (M)-MDSC and early(e)-MDSC subsets, with few (avg. < 1%) polymorphonuclear (PMN)-MDSCs (Supplementary Fig. S2A), roughly reflecting the subset composition reported in patients with solid tumors (). The MDSCs expressed the suppressive factors TGFβ, IL6, IL10, and PDL-1 in amounts often greater than tumor cells (Supplementary Figs. S2BC), and suppressed proliferation and cytokine secretion by autologous T cells stimulated with plate-bound CD3/CD28 antibodies (Supplementary Figs. S2DE) and by 2nd generation GD2.CAR-T cells encoding 4–1BB and CD3-ζ endodomains stimulated with the GD2+ tumor line LAN-1 (Supplementary Figs. S2FG). As seen in Fig. 3A, MDSCs expressed as much or more NKG2D ligand than the positive control tumor line, K562 (ligand MFI of 78.2 vs. 29.7, respectively). Freshly isolated peripheral blood T cells did not express NKG2D ligands, whereas immature and mature dendritic cells expressed little, consistent with previous data (). The neuroblastoma cell line, LAN-1, subsequently used in our in vivo TME model, did not express NKG2D ligands.

 
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Human MDSCs express ligands for NKG2D and are killed by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells.

(A) NKG2D ligand expression on human MDSCs by flow cytometry. Immature dendritic cells (iDC) and mature DCs (mDC) were used as myeloid controls. T cells activated with CD3 and CD28 mAbs plus 100 IU/mL IL2 for 24 hours were used as lymphocyte control. LAN-1 and K562 cells were used as negative and positive controls, respectively. MFI of NKG2D ligand expression in parenthesis. Representative data from single donor (of n = 25 normal donors). Isotype control for NKG2D staining routinely fell within the 1st log. (B) NKG2D.ζ–NK cell cytotoxicity against autologous MDSCs as targets in a 4-hour 51Cr-release assay. In some wells of the cytotoxicity assay, a blocking mAb to NKG2D was added. Representative data from triplicate samples per data point from a single donor (of n = 25 normal donors) is shown. * p < 0.01 vs. unmodified NK cells at same E:T ratio. (C) In the same experiment as (B), the same batch of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were analyzed for cytotoxicity against autologous B cells, monocytes, monocyte-derived iDC and mDC, and activated T cells (n = 10 donors examined). (D) M-MDSC frequency by flow cytometry from neuroblastoma tumor samples obtained from high-risk patients, as described in Methods. (E) Cytotoxicity by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells derived from patient PBMC (harvested and frozen at time of tumor sampling) against autologous tumor-derived MDSCs in a 4-hour 51Cr-release assay. Data shown are from triplicate samples per data point at a 10:1 E:T ratio. * p < 0.001 vs. unmodified NK cells from same donor. (F) NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were cocultured with autologous MDSCs at 1:1 ratio plus low-dose 50 IU/mL IL2 to maintain NK survival, and fold change in the number of each cell type from the start of coculture was determined by flow cytometry at indicated time-points. * p < 0.001 vs. NK/MDSC fold-change in unmodified NK cell cocultures. (G) Cell-free supernatants were harvested from cocultures at day 3 and analyzed for IFNγ, TNFα, IL6, and IL10 by ELISA. # p < 0.01 vs. corresponding cytokine in cocultures with unmodified NK cells. (H) NKG2D ligand expression was determined for activated T cells (ATCs) expressing NKG2D.ζ and NKG2D.ζ–NK cells. Expression of NKG2D ligands on non-transduced ATCs as control for T-cell activation. (I) NKG2D.ζ–NK cells or NKG2D.ζ T cells were cocultured with autologous ATCs at 1:1 ratio and fold change in the number of each cell type from the start of coculture was determined by flow cytometry at indicated time-points. * p < 0.001 vs. ATC fold-change at days 0 and 3 cocultures.

To evaluate MDSC susceptibility to killing by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells, we performed both short- and long-term killing assays. Fig. 3B shows enhanced killing of MDSCs by autologous NKG2D.ζ–NK cells compared to unmodified NK cells (35 ± 5.5% vs. 8 ± 2.4% cytotoxicity, respectively, at an E:T ratio of 5:1) in a 4-hr chromium-release assay. MDSC killing was dependent on NKG2D, as pre-incubation with an NKG2D blocking Ab reduced the cytotoxicity to levels achieved by unmodified NK cells. NKG2D.ζ–NK cells mediated no cytotoxicity against other autologous immune cells such as freshly-isolated monocytes, monocyte-derived mature dendritic cells, T cells, or B cells (Fig. 3C). Only immature dendritic cells, which expressed little NKG2D ligand (approx. 7% of cells; MFI 11.4), were mildly susceptible to lysis by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells (4.2 ± 1.7 % lysis at an E:T ratio of 20:1). As confirmation of the clinical applicability of our approach, we assessed whether NKG2D.ζ–NK cells generated from patient PBMCs were able to kill highly suppressive MDSCs isolated from the patient’s tumor. Tumor samples obtained from two patients with high-risk neuroblastoma at time of first biopsy/resection contained M-MDSCs (Fig. 3D). NKG2D.ζ–NK cells generated from patient PBMCs (harvested and frozen at time of tumor sampling) mediated significant cytotoxicity in vitro against M-MDSCs purified from patient tumors, whereas unmodified patient NK cells did not (Fig. 3E). These results provide further clinical evidence for the capacity of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells to eliminate MDSCs in patients with suppressive TMEs.

To determine whether NKG2D.ζ–NK cells could control MDSC survival in long-term cultures, we cocultured NKG2D.ζ–NK cells with autologous MDSCs at a 1:1 ratio for 7 days in the presence of low-dose IL2 to maintain NK survival, and quantified each cell type by flow cytometry every two days. As shown in Fig. 3F, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells expanded in cocultures (mean 9.5 ± 0.7-fold increase) with a concomitant reduction in MDSCs (mean 81.3 ± 9.4-fold decrease), whereas unmodified NK cells failed to expand or eliminate MDSCs. NK cells cultured alone or with autologous monocyte controls did not expand (0.8 ± 0.1-fold change). As seen in Fig. 3G, NK cell expansion and MDSC reduction correlated with a shift in the culture cytokine milieu from one that is immune suppressive (more IL6 and IL10; less IFN-γ and TNF-α) in cocultures containing unmodified NK cells, to one that is immune stimulatory and enhances CAR-T antitumor function (less IL6 and IL10; more IFN-γ and TNF-α) in cocultures containing NKG2D.ζ–NK cells. Hence, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells mediate potent cytotoxicity against suppressive MDSCs via their highly expressed NKG2D ligands. In addition, through selective depletion of MDSCs in combination with immune stimulatory cytokine secretion, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells skew the cytokine microenvironment to one that can support CAR-T effector functions ().

Previous studies have reported that expression of chimeric NKG2D constructs in T lymphocytes can direct these cells to target NKG2D ligand-expressing tumors (). However, activated T cells (ATCs) themselves upregulate NKG2D ligands (), with variable ligand expression intensity dependent on the T-cell activation protocol employed, leading to fratricide when the chimeric NKG2D is expressed. To determine if this off-tumor side-effect occurred when the same NKG2D.ζ was expressed in NK cells, we compared the killing of ATCs by autologous NK cells or by autologous T cells expressing our NKG2D.ζ transgene. ATCs and NKG2Dζ.-T cells both upregulated NKG2D ligands during ex vivo expansion with CD3/CD28 antibodies plus IL7 and IL15, whereas NKG2D.ζ-transduced NK cells undergoing expansion in our K562-mb15–41BB-L culture system did not (Fig. 3H). Coculture without additional stimulation of NKG2D.ζ-T cells with autologous ATCs produced fratricide, of both the NKG2D.ζ effector T cells (35 ± 7.2% decrease in cell number) and the non-transduced ATC targets (98 ± 11.5% decrease in cell number) (n = 3). By contrast, ATC numbers were unaffected by coculture with autologous NKG2D.ζ–NK cells (Fig. 3I). These results show that NK cells expressing NKG2D.ζ can kill autologous MDSCs while sparing other NKG2D ligand expressing populations, thus avoiding the fratricide seen with NKG2D.ζ-expressing T cells.

NKG2D.ζ–NK cells eliminate intra-tumoral MDSCs and reduce tumor burden.

To determine if NKG2D.ζ–NK cells could eliminate MDSCs from tumor sites in vivo, we created an MDSC-containing TME in a xenograft model of neuroblastoma. We chose NKG2D ligand-negative LAN-1 tumor for this experiment so that the effects of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells on MDSCs were not confused with their effects on the tumor cells. LAN-1 tumor cells admixed with human MDSCs were inoculated subcutaneously in NSG mice. These animals had increases in the suppressive cytokines IL10 (10-fold vs. tumor alone) and TGFβ (2.6-fold vs. tumor alone) in circulation by day 16 as compared to animals bearing tumors initiated without MDSCs, and the resultant tumors grew more rapidly due to increased neovascularization and tumor-associated stroma (Supplementary Fig. S3AD), consistent with clinical reports of MDSC-dense tumors (). As seen in Fig. 4A, in mice bearing NKG2D ligand-negative tumors without MDSCs, a single infusion of 1×107 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells resulted in a small delay in tumor growth but eventual progression, suggesting that the LAN-1 tumor itself (a marginally NK-sensitive target) can be killed at higher NK cell doses independent of NKG2D ligand expression. In mice bearing MDSC-containing tumors, 1×107 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells inhibited tumor growth (Fig. 4B), reduced NKG2D ligand-expressing intra-tumoral MDSCs with only 8.7 ± 3.5% of the input MDSCs remaining (Fig. 4C), and prolonged mouse survival (median survival of 73 days vs. 29 days after unmodified NK cells; Fig. 4D). Since LAN-1 tumor cells do not express NKG2D ligands and are only marginally sensitive to ligand-independent lysis, tumors subsequently regrew in these mice once the NKG2D.ζ–NK cells had disappeared (> day 40). Thus, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells can traffic to tumor sites and reduce intra-tumoral MDSCs but cannot themselves eradicate NKG2D ligand-negative malignant cells in our model.

 
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NKG2D.ζ–NK cells eliminate intra-tumoral MDSCs and reduce tumor burden.

LAN-1 tumor cells, either alone (A) or admixed with human MDSCs (B), were injected S.C. in the flanks of NSG mice. When tumors reached a volume of approx. 100 mm3 (day 14, gray block arrow inset), no NK cells (PBS control), 1×107 unmodified or NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were injected I.V. and tumor growth was measured over time via calipers. * p < 0.03 vs. other conditions shown at same time point. (C) On day 26, intra-tumoral human MDSCs (CD33+, HLA-DRlow) were enumerated by flow cytometry and are presented as mean % MDSCs remaining per treatment group. ** p < 0.005 vs. unmodified NK treatment. (D) Survival of groups by Kaplan-Meyer analysis. # p = 0.024. Representative experiment of three performed.

NKG2D.ζ–NK cells secrete chemokines that recruit GD2.CAR-T cells.

To determine if NKG2D.ζ–NK cells can recruit T cells modified with a tumor-specific CAR to tumor sites containing MDSCs, we cocultured NKG2D.ζ–NK cells with autologous MDSCs and analyzed culture supernatants for chemokines by multiplex ELISA. Compared to unmodified NK cells, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells produce significantly greater CCL5 (RANTES; 10-fold increase), CCL3 (MIP-1α; 2-fold increase), and CCL22 (MDC; 5-fold increase) in response to autologous MDSCs (Fig. 5A). Large amounts of CXCL8 (IL8) were also produced, but there was no significant difference from the production by unmodified NK cells. Analysis of chemokine receptor expression on 2nd generation GD2.CAR-T cells revealed CXCR1 (binds CXCL8), CCR2 (binds CCL2), CCR5 (binds CCL3), and CCR4 (binds CCL5) (see Supplementary Fig. S1C). These GD2.CAR-T cells were assayed for chemotaxis to supernatants derived from unmodified or NKG2D.ζ–NK cells cocultured with autologous MDSCs. Supernatants from NKG2D.ζ–NK cell-containing cocultures induced chemotaxis of 41.1 ± 5.5% of GD2.CAR-T cells (Fig. 5B), whereas supernatants from unmodified NK cells induced chemotaxis no greater than produced by medium (14.9 ± 6.4% vs. 17.3 ± 1.9%, respectively). Chemotaxis was not induced by supernatants from unmodified or NKG2D.ζ–NK cells cocultured with monocytes. Thus, following their encounter with MDSCs, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells secrete chemokines that recruit CAR-Ts in vitro.

 
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NKG2D.ζ–NK cells secrete chemokines that recruit GD2.CAR-T cells.

(A) NKG2D.ζ or unmodified NK cells were cocultured with autologous MDSCs and cell-free culture supernatants harvested at 48 hours were analyzed for chemokines CXCL8, CCL5, CCL3, and CCL22 by ELISA. Shown are mean chemokine concentration ± SEM for n = 5 cocultures/donor (data from one of five representative donors is shown). * p < 0.005 vs. unmodified NK cocultures. (B) GD2.CAR-T cells were assayed for chemotaxis in Transwells (described in Methods) in response to supernatants derived from unmodified or NKG2D.ζ–NK cells cocultured with autologous MDSCs. Supernatants derived from monocyte (non-suppressive myeloid cell control)-stimulated NK cells were also used. # p < 0.001 vs. Medium, ** p = 0.009 vs. “unmodified NK plus MDSCs” condition. (C) LAN-1 tumor cells, alone or admixed with human MDSCs, were injected S.C. into the flank of NSG mice. When tumors reached a volume ~100 mm3, 5×106 GD2.CAR-T cells were injected I.V. alone on day 13 (GD2.CAR-T), or preceded by 5×106 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells I.V. injected on day 10 (chNK + GD2.CAR-T). GD2.CAR-T signal at tumor site was measured over time via live-animal bioluminescence imaging. (D) Shown is mean ± SEM (n=5 mice/group) bioluminescent signal of GD2.CAR-T cells expressed as radiance. * p = 0.01 vs. all other groups.

NKG2D.ζ NK cells improve GD2.CAR-T cell trafficking to tumor sites.

To determine the effects of the MDSC-induced, NKG2D.ζ–NK cell chemokines on CAR-T cell recruitment in vivo, we used our MDSC-containing TME xenograft model (see Fig. 4). When tumors reached a volume of ~100 mm3 (day 10), 5×106 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were infused, followed three days later (day 13) by infusion of 5×106 luciferase gene-transduced GD2.CAR-T cells. Tumor localization and expansion of GD2.CAR-T cells was measured over time via live-animal bioluminescence imaging. As seen in Fig. 5C, GD2.CAR-T cells injected alone on day 13 after tumor inoculation (without pre-administration of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells) into mice bearing tumors devoid of MDSCs localized effectively to subcutaneous tumors in the flank (4 of 5 mice showed bioluminescent signal on days 14 and 18; Fig. 5C). There was a 10.5 ± 0.8-fold increase in bioluminescent signal on day 18, with CAR-T cell bioluminescence remaining above baseline levels for the duration of the experiment (Fig. 5D). However, in tumors containing MDSCs, CAR-T cells localized poorly: only 1 of 5 mice exhibited bioluminescent signal (Fig. 5C), with only a 1.02 ± 0.1-fold increase in bioluminescent signal on day 18 and bioluminescence falling below pre-infusion levels within 10 days after injection (Fig. 5D). In contrast, pre-administration of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells on day 10 into mice bearing MDSC-containing tumors allowed subsequently infused GD2.CAR-T cells to localize effectively to tumor sites, with bioluminescence in 5 of 5 mice at the tumor site and a 10.9 ± 0.2-fold increase in bioluminescent signal on day 18, within 5 days of injection (Fig. 5D).

To determine if NKG2D.ζ–NK cells could promote GD2.CAR-T infiltration into the tumor bed, we compared the frequency of human GD2.CAR-T and human NK cells in the tumor periphery and the tumor core by immunohistochemistry (Supplementary Fig. S4AB). In tumors without MDSCs, 89 ± 11% of the total T cells in the tumor had infiltrated into the tumor core. In contrast, a much smaller fraction (39 ± 16%) infiltrated into the core of tumors containing MDSCs, suggesting TME suppression of CAR-T infiltration. However, pre-treatment of tumors containing MDSCs with NKG2D.ζ–NK cells increased the fraction of intra-tumoral CAR-T cells (70 ± 13%) within the tumor core. Equal numbers of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells were observed within both peripheral and core samples from MDSC-positive and MDSC-negative tumors (Supplementary Fig. S5), suggesting the ability of NK cells to traffic well within tumors despite the presence of MDSCs.

Elimination of MDSCs increases antitumor activity of GD2.CAR-T cells.

To determine if the activities of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells described above enhance the antitumor function of CAR-T cells, we treated mice bearing subcutaneous, luciferase-labeled neuroblastoma containing MDSCs with GD2.CAR-T cells preceded by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells, in a similar set-up to experiments in Fig. 5C. As seen in Fig. 6AB, a single injection of 5×106 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells (a dose that achieved intra-tumoral MDSC depletion with only 26.8 ± 5.8% of the input MDSCs remaining) resulted in no significant tumor regression or prolongation of survival in mice bearing xenografts containing human MDSCs. A single infusion of 5×106 GD2.CAR-T cells significantly reduced tumor in mice whose xenografts lacked human MDSCs with a median survival of 95 days (Fig. 6CD). However, the same GD2.CAR-T cells were ineffective against xenografts containing human MDSCs, worsening overall median survival to 39 days (Fig. 6B). In contrast, when the same GD2.CAR-T cell injection was preceded 3 days earlier by a single injection of 5×106 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells (that had no direct antitumor effect by themselves within the other arm of the same experiment, see Fig. 6AB), the antitumor activity of the GD2.CAR-T cells in mice bearing MDSC-containing tumors was restored to the level observed in mice whose tumors lacked MDSCs (Fig. 6C). NKG2D.ζ–NK cells pre-injection also improved the overall survival of the mice with MDSC-containing tumors to a median 120 days with durable cure in 2 of 5 mice (Fig. 6D). Taken together, our results suggest that NKG2D.ζ–NK cells not only eliminate MDSCs from the TME, but also recruit CAR-T cells to intra-tumoral sites which facilitates antitumor efficacy.

 
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Elimination of MDSCs by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells increases antitumor activity of GD2.CAR-T cells.

Luciferase gene-transduced LAN-1 tumor cells, alone or admixed with human MDSCs, were injected S.C. into NSG mice. (A) When tumors reached a volume ~100 mm3, no treatment (No Tx; PBS control) or 5×106 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells alone (chNK) were injected I.V. on day 10 and tumor growth was measured over time via live-animal bioluminescence imaging. Shown is mean ± SEM (n=5 mice/group) bioluminescent signal expressed as radiance. # ns, p = 0.18 vs. No treatment (+MDSC) group. (B) Survival of groups in A was determined by Kaplan-Meyer analysis. # ns, p = 0.059. (C) In other groups of mice within the same experiment, 5×106 GD2.CAR-T cells were injected I.V. alone on day 13 (GD2.CAR-T), or preceded by 5×106 NKG2D.ζ–NK cells injected on day 10 (chNK+GD2.CAR-T). * p = 0.001; # ns, p = 0.59 vs. each other. (D) Survival of groups in C by Kaplan-Meyer analysis. Representative experiment of 5 separate experiments. * p = 0.002; ** p = 0.001.

DISCUSSION

We have developed a TME-disrupting approach that eliminates MDSCs and rescues MDSC-mediated impairment of tumor-directed CAR-T cells. We show that when co-implanted with a neuroblastoma cell line, human MDSCs both enhance tumor growth and suppress the infiltration, expansion, and antitumor efficacy of tumor-specific CAR T-cells. In this model, NK cells bearing a chimeric version of the activating receptor NKG2D (NKG2D.ζ–NK cells) are directly cytotoxic to autologous MDSCs, thus eliminating MDSCs from tumors. In addition, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells secrete pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines in response to MDSCs at the tumor site, improving CAR-T cell infiltration and function, and resulting in tumor regression and prolonged survival compared to treatment with CAR-T cells alone. Our cell therapy approach utilizes an engineered innate immune effector that targets the TME, and shows potential to enhance efficacy of combination immune-based therapies for solid tumors.

NKG2D.ζ–NK cells directly killed highly suppressive MDSCs generated in vitro as well as those from patient tumors. NKG2D.ζ–NK cells also secreted cytokines that favored immune activation in response to MDSCs. Unmodified NK cells were unable to mediate these effects. The ability of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells to eliminate MDSCs from the TME should have several beneficial effects for antitumor immunity. First, as MDSCs express suppressive cytokines such as TGFβ and the checkpoint ligands PDL-1 and PDL-2, elimination of MDSCs should help relieve the suppression of endogenous T cell responses and potentiate the activity of adoptive T cell therapies. Given that high baseline numbers of MDSCs have been reported as a biomarker of poor response in the context of trials with the checkpoint inhibitors ipilimumab and pembrolizumab (), elimination of MDSCs by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells may also enhance checkpoint inhibition. Second, elimination of MDSCs should also decrease other MDSC-associated effects, including neovascularization via their expression of VEGF, production of immunosuppressive metabolic products such as PGE2 and adenosine, and establishment of tumor-supportive stroma via their expression of iNOS, FGF, and matrix metalloproteinases (). In short, the ability of NKG2D.ζ–NK cells to eliminate MDSCs alters the tumor microenvironment in multiple ways that should improve antitumor immunity.

Previous strategies for modulation of MDSCs within the TME have included use of agents that block single functions such as secretion of nitric oxide () or expression of checkpoint molecules (); induce MDSC differentiation such as with all-trans retinoic acid (); or eliminate MDSCs such as with the cytotoxic agents doxorubicin or cyclophosphamide (). The MDSC eliminating effects were dependent on continued administration of the agents, with a rapid rebound in MDSCs after discontinuation. Moreover, many of these agents have off-target toxicities that include damage to endogenous tumor-specific T cells. In contrast, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells produce prolonged and specific elimination of MDSCs with the potential to kill MDSCs that are recruited to the tumor from the bone marrow, while continually secreting cytokines and chemokines which respectively alter TME suppression and recruit and activate tumor-specific T cells. Thus, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells exert a prolonged combination of simultaneous immune modulatory effects that enhance antitumor immune function in ways that could not be achieved by previous methods that target MDSCs.

We observed no toxicity against normal hematopoietic cells when NKG2D.ζ was expressed in autologous human NK cells. Previous studies overexpressing an NKG2D.ζ receptor containing co-stimulatory endodomains (e.g., CD28 or 41BB) and DAP10, a signaling adaptor molecule for enhanced surface expression of NKG2D, in T cells showed activity against NKG2D ligand-overexpressing tumors, but at the cost of fratricide in vitro and lethal toxicity in mice (). Using our standard T-cell activation/expansion protocol (), we also observed upregulation of NKG2D ligands, leading to fratricide in T cells expressing NKG2D.ζ. When NKG2D.ζ-T cells engage NKG2D ligands expressed on normal tissues, they will not receive the physiologic NK cell-directed inhibitory inputs that would safely regulate this potent and unopposed chimeric receptor activity. By contrast, when NKG2D.ζ is expressed on NK cells, they are able to recognize inhibitory NK cell ligands such as self-MHC expressed on healthy self-tissues, counteracting otherwise unopposed positive signals from NKG2D ligands. Thus, an NK cell platform for NKG2D enhancement may limit toxicity while taking advantage of the cytotoxic and immune modulatory potential of the receptor-ligand system.

Unlike wild-type NKG2D, transgenic NKG2D.ζ expression and activity were not sensitive to down-modulation by TGFβ or soluble NKG2D ligands, allowing improved function in the TME. Native NKG2D relies solely on the intra-cytoplasmic adaptor DAP10 for mediating its cytolytic activity in human NK cells (). TGFβ1 and soluble NKG2D ligands both decrease DAP10 gene transcription and protein activity, and thus reduce NKG2D function in endogenous NK cells (). In contrast, transgenic NKG2D.ζ does not rely on DAP10-based signaling for its activity, since signaling occurs through the ζ-chain. Thus, this construct provides a stable cytolytic pathway capable of circumventing TME-mediated down-modulation of native NKG2D activity. A previous study expressing a chimeric NKG2D.ζ molecule that incorporated DAP10 reported enhanced NK cytotoxicity compared to NKG2D.ζ alone in vitro against a variety of human cancer cell lines as well as in a xenograft model of osteosarcoma (). However, this report did not address the susceptibility of this complex to down-modulation by TGFβ or soluble NKG2D ligands, or whether these NK cells had activity against MDSCs.

NKG2D.ζ–NK cells countered immunosuppression mediated by MDSCs leading to enhanced CAR-T cell tumor infiltration and expansion at tumor sites, CAR-T functions that are impaired in patients with solid tumors (). Unlike the GD2.CAR-T cells in our model, NKG2D.ζ–NK cells homed effectively to MDSC-engrafted tumors and released an array of chemokines that increased T cell infiltration of tumor. Unlike pharmacologic strategies aimed at enhancing leukocyte trafficking, including administration of lymphotactin or TNFα (), our approach does not require continuous cytokine administration. In fact, the ability of chimeric NKG2D to augment NK immune function specifically within the immunosuppressive TME provides for the local release of chemotactic factors, reflecting a more homeostatic method by which to increase CAR-T infiltration. Once there, CAR-T cells should meet an environment favorably modified by NKG2D.ζ–NK cell mediated elimination of MDSCs and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Indeed, elimination of MDSCs from a GD2+ tumor xenograft enhanced the activity of GD2.CAR-T cells in our model, including T-cell survival and intratumoral expansion. Given the suppressive effects of MDSCs in neuroblastoma (), the model shows how reversal of an MDSC-mediated suppressive microenvironment can improve antitumor functions of effector T cells.

Clinical neuroblastoma contains intense infiltrates of MDSCs (), which are not included in tumor xenograft models currently used to study human cell therapeutics. Our data suggest that co-inoculation of tumors with suppressive components (such as MDSCs) can model TME-mediated suppression of CAR-T activity against solid tumors, and provides a method by which to understand and counter immunosuppression. Although NSG mice lack a complete immune system in which to examine the effects of multiple endogenous immune components, our ability to engraft exogenous components (e.g., human MDSCs) within our TME model provides the possibility of simulating different immunosuppressive aspects of the solid TME. In fact, further model development utilizing human inhibitory macrophages and regulatory T cells (Tregs) as additional suppressive components of the TME is currently underway in our laboratory.

In summary, we describe an approach to reverse the suppressive TME using engineered human NK cells. We have shown that generation and expansion of our NK cell product is feasible and that NKG2D.ζ–NK cells have antitumor activity within a suppressive solid tumor microenvironment without toxicity to normal NKG2D ligand-expressing tissues. Hence, the elimination of suppressive MDSCs by NKG2D.ζ–NK cells may safely enhance adoptive cellular immunotherapy for neuroblastoma and for many other tumors that are supported and protected by MDSCs.

Other posts on this site on Immunotherapy and Cancer include

Combined anti-CTLA4 and anti-PD1 immunotherapy shows promising results against advanced melanoma

Molecular Profiling in Cancer Immunotherapy: Debraj GuhaThakurta, PhD

Pancreatic Cancer: Genetics, Genomics and Immunotherapy

$20 million Novartis deal with ‘University of Pennsylvania’ to develop Ultra-Personalized Cancer Immunotherapy

Upcoming Meetings on Cancer Immunogenetics

Tang Prize for 2014: Immunity and Cancer

ipilimumab, a Drug that blocks CTLA-4 Freeing T cells to Attack Tumors @DM Anderson Cancer Center

Juno’s approach eradicated cancer cells in 10 of 12 leukemia patients, indicating potential to transform the standard of care in oncology

Report on Cancer Immunotherapy Market & Clinical Pipeline Insight

New Immunotherapy Could Fight a Range of Cancers

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Envisage-Wistar Partnership and Immunacel LLC Presents at PCCI

Reporter: Stephen J. Williams, PhD

The Pharmaceutical Consulting Consortium International (PCCI) June Meeting: Envisage-Wistar Partnership and Immunacel LLC

An early stage healthcare venture creation and management firm

Presenter: Vic Subbu, COO of Immunacel & Managing Partner of Envisage and Heather Steinman, VP of Business Development & Executive Director Tech Transfer Wistar Institute

Monday, June 8, 2015

Embassy Suites, Chesterbrook, Pennsylvania (directions)

Announcement from the PCCI website:

Much has been said lately about how to improve the tech transfer situation. Wistar is meeting this challenge. Immunacel is the first of a series of developmental challenges and the Envisage-Wistar partnership solution becomes the meat of the evening’s discussion.

The Wistar Institute is the nation’s first independent institution devoted to medical research and training. The Wistar Institute has evolved from its beginnings as an anatomical teaching museum to its present-day status as an international leader in basic biomedical research.

Envisage LLC is an early stage healthcare venture creation and management firm. By focusing on key healthcare segments, Envisage aims to identify and advance promising healthcare innovations into value-add ventures.

IMMUNACCEL LLC is a Wistar Institute spin-out focused on accelerating the development of immune-mediated treatments for cancer and other unmet medical needs:

MMUNACCEL’s 3-D cancer-immune cell organotypic culture system is a physiologically relevant culture system utilizing primary human cancer cells and cytotoxic T cells (CTL) generated from patient T-cells, amongst fibroblasts and collagen assembled in a 3-D organotypic model.

Other related articles on PCCI and Philadelphia Biotech were published in this Open Access Online Scientific Journal, include the following:

PCCI’s 7th Annual Roundtable “Crowdfunding for Life Sciences: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters?” May 12 2014 Embassy Suites Hotel, Chesterbrook PA 6:00-9:30 PM

Protecting Your Biotech IP and Market Strategy: Notes from Life Sciences Collaborative 2015 Meeting

The Vibrant Philly Biotech Scene: Focus on KannaLife Sciences and the Discipline and Potential of Pharmacognosy

The Vibrant Philly Biotech Scene: Focus on Computer-Aided Drug Design and Gfree Bio, LLC

The Vibrant Philly Biotech Scene: Focus on Vaccines and Philimmune, LLC

The Bioscience Crowdfunding Environment: The Bigger Better VC?

R&D Alliances between Big Pharma and Academic Research Centers: Pharma’s Realization that Internal R&D Groups alone aren’t enough

BIO Partnering: Intersection of Academic and Industry: BIO INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION June 23-26, 2014 | San Diego, CA

Diagnostics and Biomarkers: Novel Genomics Industry Trends vs Present Market Conditions and Historical Scientific Leaders Memoirs

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