Revolutionizing Cancer Treatment: Scientists Discover How To Boost Artificial Immune “Super-Cells”

Destroying Cancer Cells Concept Art

A team has discovered a method to enhance the effectiveness of CAR-T cell immunotherapy by inhibiting a metabolic mechanism, thus prolonging the cells’ ability to combat cancer. The study found that stopping this mechanism in CAR-T cells helps in their transformation into memory T lymphocytes, providing longer-lasting immune protection against tumors.

Researchers in Western Switzerland have uncovered how to enhance the tumor-fighting abilities of CAR-T cells, artificial immune “super-cells” utilized in battling blood cancers.

Among available immunotherapies, the use of «CAR-T» cells has shown significant efficacy in treating certain blood cancers, but only in half of patients. A main reason for this is the premature dysfunction of these immune cells, which have been artificially modified in vitro.

A collaborative research team from the Universities of Geneva (UNIGE), Lausanne (UNIL), the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) and the Vaud University Hospital (CHUV), all part of the Swiss Cancer Center Léman (SCCL), has identified a method to prolong the functionality of CAR-T cells. By inhibiting a very specific metabolic mechanism, the team has succeeded in creating CAR-T cells with enhanced immune memory, capable of fighting tumor cells for much longer.

These very promising results were recently published in the journal Nature.

CAR-T cell immunotherapy involves taking immune cells – usually T lymphocytes – from a person suffering from cancer, modifying them in the laboratory to increase their ability to recognize and fight tumor cells, and then readministering them to the patient. However, as with other types of immunotherapies, many patients do not respond to the treatment or relapse.

‘‘CAR-T cells must be massively multiplied before they can be administered,’’ explains Mathias Wenes, a research fellow who coordinated this research in the laboratory of Pr Denis Migliorini, Department of Medicine at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and Department of Oncology at HUG. ‘‘But the disease history of the patient, in combination with the amplification process, exhausts the cells: they reach a state of terminal differentiation that precipitates the end of their life cycle without leaving them time to act on the length.’’

A mechanism common to cancer cells and immune cells

In the absence of oxygen, cancer cells resort to a very specific survival mechanism: they metabolize the amino acid glutamine as an alternative source of energy through a chemical reaction known as ‘‘reductive carboxylation’’. ‘‘Immune cells and cancer cells have a fairly similar metabolism, which enables them to proliferate very rapidly. We have indeed discovered here that T cells also used this mechanism,’’ explains Alison Jaccard, a Ph.D. student in Professor Ping-Chih Ho’s laboratory in the UNIL-CHUV Department of Oncology and the study’s first author.

To investigate the role of reductive carboxylation, the scientists inhibited this mechanism in CAR-T cells in mouse models of leukemia and multiple myeloma, two blood cancers. ‘‘Our modified CAR-T cells multiplied normally and did not lose their capacity to attack, indicating that reductive carboxylation is not essential for them,’’ Mathias Wenes sums up.

Mice cured with these CAR-T

What’s more, the mice treated in this way were virtually cured of their cancer, a result well beyond the research team’s expectations. ‘‘Without reductive carboxylation, the cells no longer differentiate as much and maintain their anti-tumor function for longer. And even, and this is the heart of our discovery, they tend to transform into memory T lymphocytes, a type of immune cell that retains the memory of the tumor elements that needs to be attacked.’’

Memory T lymphocytes play a key role in the secondary immune response. They retain the memory of pathogens previously encountered and can reactivate when its reappears – as in the case of a virus, but also in the case of tumor pathogens – providing much longer-lasting immune protection. ‘‘The same principle applies to CAR-T cells: the higher the number of memory cells, the more effective the anti-tumor response and the better the clinical outcome. The state of differentiation of CAR-T cells is therefore a key factor in the success of the treatment.”

A cross-talk between metabolism and gene expression.

Unfolded, the DNA contained in each of our cells would measure about two meters in length. To fit into the tiny cell nucleus, it is condensed around proteins called histones. In order for gene transcription to occur, specific DNA regions need to unwrap, which happens by modifying histones.

When T cells are activated, histone modifications take place which, on one hand, condense DNA and prevent transcription of genes ensuring longevity, while on the other hand open up and allow transcription of genes driving their inflammatory and killing function. Reductive carboxylation acts directly on the generation of metabolites, small chemical elements that modify histones, to influence DNA packaging, and to prevent accessibility to longevity genes. Its inhibition maintains the opening of those genes and promotes their transformation into long-lived memory CAR-Ts.

Soon a clinical application?

The inhibitor used by the scientists to block reductive carboxylation is a drug already approved for the treatment of certain cancers. ‘‘We, therefore, propose to reposition it in order to extend its use and produce more powerful CART cells in vitro. Of course, their efficacy and safety need to be tested in clinical trials, but we have very good hopes!’’, conclude the authors.

An example of what the Swiss Cancer Center Léman can achieve

This potentially translatable work would never have been possible without the network put in place by the SCCL. Indeed laboratories in not less than four lemanic institutes joined forces to bring this impactful project to fruition: UNIL, CHUV, UNIGE, and HUG. The alliance between these institutions fosters collaborations between groups that enable synergies in areas that complement each other (tumor metabolism, oncoimmunology, immune cell engineering).

Reference: “Reductive carboxylation epigenetically instructs T cell differentiation” by Alison Jaccard, Tania Wyss, Noelia Maldonado-Pérez, Jan A. Rath, Alessio Bevilacqua, Jhan-Jie Peng, Anouk Lepez, Christine Von Gunten, Fabien Franco, Kung-Chi Kao, Nicolas Camviel, Francisco Martín, Bart Ghesquière, Denis Migliorini, Caroline Arber, Pedro Romero, Ping-Chih Ho and Mathias Wenes, 20 September 2023, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06546-y

Be the first to comment on "Revolutionizing Cancer Treatment: Scientists Discover How To Boost Artificial Immune “Super-Cells”"

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.