A new cancer immunotherapy approach could essentially outsource a crucial T-cell function. This function, T-cell reactivity to specific cancer antigens, is sometimes lacking in cancer patients. Yet, according to a new proof-of-principle study, these patients could benefit from T cells provided by healthy donors. Specifically, the healthy donors’ T cells could be used to broaden the T-cell receptor repertoires of the cancer patients’ T cells.
Ultimately, this approach relies on a cancer immunotherapy technique called T-cell receptor (TCR) transfer, or the genetic transfer of TCR chains. TCR transfer can be used to outsource the T cell’s learning function, the process by which a T cell acquires the ability to recognize foreign antigens—in this case, the sort of proteins that can be expressed on the surface of cancer cells. Because cancer cells harbor faulty proteins, they can also display foreign protein fragments, also known as neoantigens, on their surface, much in the way virus-infected cells express fragments of viral proteins.
The approach was detailed in a paper that appeared May 19 in the journal Science, in an article entitled, “Targeting of Cancer Neoantigens with Donor-Derived T Cell Receptor Repertoires.” This article, by scientists based at the Netherlands Cancer Institute and the University of Oslo, describes a novel strategy to broaden neoantigen-specific T-cell responses. Such a strategy would be useful in overcoming a common limitation seen in the immune response to cancer: Neoantigen-specific T-cell reactivity is generally limited to just a few mutant epitopes, even though the number of predicted epitopes is large.
“We demonstrate that T cell repertoires from healthy donors provide a rich source of T cells that specifically recognize neoantigens present on human tumors,” the study’s authors wrote. “Responses to 11 epitopes were observed, and for the majority of evaluated epitopes, potent and specific recognition of tumor cells endogenously presenting the neoantigens was detected.”
First, the researchers mapped all possible neoantigens on the surface of melanoma cells from three different patients. In all three patients, the cancer cells seemed to display a large number of different neoantigens. But when the researchers tried to match these to the T cells derived from within the patient's tumors, most of these aberrant protein fragments on the tumor cells went unnoticed.
Next, the researchers tested whether the same neoantigens could be seen by T cells derived from healthy volunteers. Strikingly, these donor-derived T cells could detect a significant number of neoantigens that had not been seen by the patients’ T cells.
“Many of the T cell reactivities [among donor T cells] involved epitopes that in vivo were neglected by patient autologous tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes,” the authors of the Science article continued. “T cells re-directed with T cell receptors identified from donor-derived T cells efficiently recognized patient-derived melanoma cells harboring the relevant mutations, providing a rationale for the use of such ‘outsourced’ immune responses in cancer immunotherapy.”
“In a way, our findings show that the immune response in cancer patients can be strengthened; there is more on the cancer cells that makes them foreign that we can exploit. One way we consider doing this is finding the right donor T cells to match these neoantigens,” said Ton Schumacher, Ph.D., a principal investigator at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. “The receptor that is used by these donor T cells can then be used to genetically modify the patient's own T cells so these will be able to detect the cancer cells.”
“Our study shows that the principle of outsourcing cancer immunity to a donor is sound,” added Johanna Olweus, M.D., Ph.D., who heads a research group at the University of Oslo. “However, more work needs to be done before patients can benefit from this discovery. Thus, we need to find ways to enhance the throughput.”
“We are currently exploring high-throughput methods to identify the neoantigens that the T cells can 'see' on the cancer and isolate the responding cells. But the results showing that we can obtain cancer-specific immunity from the blood of healthy individuals are already very promising.”