New Universal Platform for Cancer Immunotherapy Developed by Penn-led Team

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Media Contact:Karen Kreeger | | 215-349-5658March 5, 2012

Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania report this month in Cancer Research a universal approach to personalized cancer therapy based on T cells. It is the first time a system for making an adaptable, engineered T-cell to attack specific tumor types has been proposed, depending on which abnormal proteins, called antigens, are expressed by individual patients’ tumor cells.

For now, the system is being refined in experiments using healthy donor T cells and animal models of human cancer, with the aim to introduce the personalized cells into patients in the future, explains senior author Daniel J. Powell Jr., Ph.D., a research assistant professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine with Penn's Ovarian Cancer Research Center.

Tumor antigens are potential targets of an immune response, and identifying which antigens a patient's tumor cells express would be helpful in designing cancer therapy for that individual. Any mutated protein produced in a tumor cell can act as a tumor antigen. Many tumor cells have surface proteins that are inappropriately expressed for the cell type, or are only normally present during embryonic development. Still other tumor cells display cell surface proteins that are rare or absent on the surfaces of healthy cells and are responsible for activating molecular pathways that cause uncontrolled replication of cells. In most cancers, not all patients have tumor cells that express the exact same antigen, and sometimes tumor cells from a single patient can express different antigens. Because of this complexity, it is important to properly choose which antigen to target with cancer therapy.

T cells engineered to express an engineered antigen, called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR), offer an attractive strategy for targeting antigens and treating cancer, says Powell. CARs are engineered receptors that graft, for example, the portion of a tumor-specific antibody onto an immune cell. This allows the patients’ T cells to recognize tumor antigens and kill their tumor cells.

For therapy, a large number of tumor-specific, cancer-fighting CAR T cells can be generated in a specialized lab using patients' own T cells, which are then infused back into them. This approach has shown promising results in patients whose tumors all express the same antigen.