Multi-targeted CRISPR-based genome engineering has been used to successfully generate adoptive anti-cancer T cells. The T cells express an NY-ESO-1 transgene alongside deletion of both PD-1 and the endogenous T cell receptor.
CRISPR-engineered T cells in patients with refractory cancer
Science 28 Feb 2020
Most cancers are recognized and attacked by the immune system but can progress owing to tumor-mediated immunosuppression and immune evasion mechanisms. The infusion of ex vivo engineered T cells, termed adoptive T cell therapy, can increase the natural antitumor immune response of the patient. Gene therapy to redirect immune specificity combined with genome editing has the potential to improve the efficacy and increase the safety of engineered T cells. CRISPR coupled with CRISPR-associated protein 9 (Cas9) endonuclease is a powerful gene-editing technology that potentially allows the ability to target multiple genes in T cells to improve cancer immunotherapy.
Our first-in-human, phase 1 clinical trial (clinicaltrials.gov; trial NCT03399448) was designed to test the safety and feasibility of multiplex CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing of T cells from patients with advanced, refractory cancer. A limitation of adoptively transferred T cell efficacy has been the induction of T cell dysfunction or exhaustion. We hypothesized that removing the endogenous T cell receptor (TCR) and the immune checkpoint molecule programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) would improve the function and persistence of engineered T cells. In addition, the removal of PD-1 has the potential to improve safety and reduce toxicity that can be caused by autoimmunity. A synthetic, cancer-specific TCR transgene (NY-ESO-1) was also introduced to recognize tumor cells. In vivo tracking and persistence of the engineered T cells were monitored to determine if the cells could persist after CRISPR-Cas9 modifications.
Four cell products were manufactured at clinical scale, and three patients (two with advanced refractory myeloma and one with metastatic sarcoma) were infused. The editing efficiency was consistent in all four products and varied as a function of the single guide RNA (sgRNA), with highest efficiency observed for the TCR α chain gene (TRAC) and lowest efficiency for the TCR β chain gene (TRBC). The mutations induced by CRISPR-Cas9 were highly specific for the targeted loci; however, rare off-target edits were observed. Single-cell RNA sequencing of the infused CRISPR-engineered T cells revealed that ~30% of cells had no detectable mutations, whereas ~40% had a single mutation and ~20 and ~10% of the engineered T cells were double mutated and triple mutated, respectively, at the target sequences. The edited T cells engrafted in all three patients at stable levels for at least 9 months. The persistence of the T cells expressing the engineered TCR was much more durable than in three previous clinical trials during which T cells were infused that retained expression of the endogenous TCR and endogenous PD-1. There were no clinical toxicities associated with the engineered T cells. Chromosomal translocations were observed in vitro during cell manufacturing, and these decreased over time after infusion into patients. Biopsies of bone marrow and tumor showed trafficking of T cells to the sites of tumor in all three patients. Although tumor biopsies revealed residual tumor, in both patients with myeloma, there was a reduction in the target antigens NY-ESO-1 and/or LAGE-1. This result is consistent with an on-target effect of the engineered T cells, resulting in tumor evasion.
Preliminary results from this pilot trial demonstrate that multiplex human genome engineering is safe and feasible using CRISPR-Cas9. The extended persistence of the engineered T cells indicates that preexisting immune responses to Cas9 do not appear to present a barrier to the implementation of this promising technology.