Background Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) are engineered synthetic receptors that reprogram T cell specificity and function against a given antigen. Autologous CAR-T cell therapy has demonstrated potent efficacy against various hematological malignancies, but has yielded limited success against solid cancers. MEDI7028 is a CAR that targets oncofetal antigen glypican-3 (GPC3), which is expressed in 70–90% of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), but not in normal liver tissue. Transforming growth factor β (TGFβ) secretion is increased in advanced HCC, which creates an immunosuppressive milieu and facilitates cancer progression and poor prognosis. We tested whether the anti-tumor efficacy of a GPC3 CAR-T can be enhanced with the co-expression of dominant-negative TGFβRII (TGFβRIIDN).
Methods Primary human T cells were lentivirally transduced to express GPC3 CAR both with and without TGFβRIIDN. Western blot and flow cytometry were performed on purified CAR-T cells to assess modulation of pathways and immune phenotypes driven by TGFβ in vitro. A xenograft model of human HCC cell line overexpressing TGFβ in immunodeficient mice was used to investigate the in vivo efficacy of TGFβRIIDN armored and unarmored CAR-T. Tumor infiltrating lymphocyte populations were analyzed by flow cytometry while serum cytokine levels were quantified with ELISA.
Results Armoring GPC3 CAR-T with TGFβRIIDN nearly abolished phospho-SMAD2/3 expression upon exposure to recombinant human TGFβ in vitro, indicating that the TGFβ signaling axis was successfully blocked by expression of the dominant-negative receptor. Additionally, expression of TGFβRIIDN suppressed TGFβ-driven CD103 upregulation, further demonstrating attenuation of the pathway by this armoring strategy. In vivo, the TGFβRIIDN armored CAR-T achieved superior tumor regression and delayed tumor regrowth compared to the unarmored CAR-T. The armored CAR-T cells infiltrated HCC tumors more abundantly than their unarmored counterparts, and were phenotypically less exhausted and less differentiated. In line with these observations, we detected significantly more interferon gamma (IFNγ) at peak response and decreased alpha-fetoprotein in the serum of mice treated with armored cells compared to mice receiving unarmored CAR-T, demonstrating in vivo functional superiority of TGFβRIIDN armored CAR-T therapy.
Conclusions Armoring GPC3 CAR-T with TGFβRIIDN abrogates the signaling of TGFβ in vitro and enhances the anti-tumor efficacy of GPC3 CAR-T against TGFβ-expressing HCC tumors in vivo, proving TGFβRIIDN to be an effective armoring strategy against TGFβ-expressing solid malignancies in preclinical models.
Ethics Approval The study was approved by AstraZeneca’s Ethics Board and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
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