Background Adoptive transfer of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-modified T cells has emerged as a promising treatment modality for a broad range of cancers highlighted by the approval of Kymriah™ and Yescarta™ for the treatment of B cell malignancies. However, lack of control of CAR T cell function and consequent excessive inflammation in patients can result in severe side effects especially when targeting tumor-associated rather than tumor-specific antigens. Thus, temporal and tunable control of CAR activity is of major importance for the clinical translation of innovative CAR designs. While the activation of suicide switches results in the apoptotic elimination of the transferred cells, other strategies, e.g. anti-tag CARs or small molecule-gated CARs, enable the reversible control of CAR-mediated function at the protein level but are restricted to a particular CAR design. Focusing on the control of expression rather than CAR signaling, transcriptional regulators represent a versatile tool facilitating a wide range of CAR T cell applications.
Materials and Methods To maintain control over the infused CAR T cell product and mitigate risks for the patient, we describe here the development of an inducible switch system for the transcriptional regulation of transgene expression in primary, human T cells. Chemically regulated synthetic transcription factors composed of a zinc finger DNA-binding domain, an inducible control domain and a transcription activation domain were designed, screened for functionality, and evaluated in T cells regarding their potential to control CAR expression both in vitro and in vivo.
Results By screening, we identified a synthetic transcription factor, which shows high transcriptional output in T cells in the presence of a clinically relevant inducer drug and absence of background activity in the non-induced state. Using this system we were able to control the expression of a CAR recognizing the CD20 antigen present on B cells and B cell leukemic blasts. The addition of the inducer drug resulted in rapid expression of the anti-CD20 CAR on the T cell surface. Moreover, inducible anti-CD20 CAR T cells executed cytolytic activity against CD20 positive target cells and secreted cytokines upon stimulation in vitro. Effectivity in co-cultures was thereby comparable to T cells expressing the anti-CD20 CAR under a conventional constitutive promoter. Furthermore, we could fine-tune CAR activity by titrating the inducer concentration. By defining the time-point of induction, modulation of the onset of therapy was achieved. Upon inducer drug discontinuation, inducible CD20 CAR T cells lost CAR expression and concurrently all CAR-related functions, indicating that the ‘on’ and ‘off’ status can be tightly controlled by the administration of the drug. After pausing of CAR T cell-mediated activity, we could re-induce CAR expression suggesting complete reversibility of effector function. Finally, we were able to show that inducible CD20 CAR T cells mediate a significant, strictly inducer-dependent antitumor activity in a well-established mouse model of B cell lymphoma.
Conclusions The zinc-finger-based transcriptional control system investigated in this study provides small molecule-inducible control over a therapeutically relevant anti-CD20 CAR in primary T cells in a time- and dose-dependent manner. The tight regulation of CAR expression will pave the way for safer cellular therapies.
Disclosure Information B. Kotter: A. Employment (full or part-time); Significant; Miltenyi Biotec B.V. & Co. KG. N. Werchau: A. Employment (full or part-time); Significant; Miltenyi Biotec B.V. & Co. KG. W. Krueger: A. Employment (full or part-time); Significant; Lentigen Technology Inc. A. Roy: A. Employment (full or part-time); Significant; Lentigen Technology Inc. J. Mittelstaet: A. Employment (full or part-time); Significant; Miltenyi Biotec B.V. & Co. KG. A. Kaiser: A. Employment (full or part-time); Significant; Miltenyi Biotec B.V. & Co. KG.
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