Background Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cells are a promising new therapy for patients with cancer. However, in contrast to their success in B cell malignancies, CAR-T cells targeting solid cancers have had limited success so far due to their poor proliferation and poor long-term persistence in vivo. To address this issue, we used naïve T cells to generate second-generation CAR-T cells recognizing the tumor antigen Lewis Y (LeY), termed ‘early’ CAR-T cells.
Methods Purified naïve T cells were activated by CD3/CD28 soluble tetrameric antibody complex, retrovirally transduced (LeY scFv-CD3z-CD28 CAR) and expanded in IL-7/IL-15. The early LeY CAR-T cell function was tested in vitro for cytotoxicity (Cr-release and degranulation), proliferation, and cytokine secretion by CBA, either de novo or following chronic stimulation for 1 month. Finally, early CAR-T cell persistence and anti-tumor efficacy was assessed in the OVCAR3-NSG model, in the presence or absence of anti-PD-1.
Results The early-CAR-T cells comprised stem cell memory-like (CD95+, CD62L+, CD45RA+) and central memory phenotype (CD95+, CD62L+, CD45RA-) T cells with increased expression of ICOS, Ki67, TCF7 and CD27 (Figure 1). The early-CAR-T cells retained potent antigen-specific cytotoxicity, and secreted significantly higher levels of cytokines (IFN-?, TNF-a and IL-2) and increased proliferation compared to conventional CAR-T cells. Importantly, early-CAR-T cells had a significantly higher proliferative capacity after long-term chronic stimulation compared to conventional CAR-T cells (figure 2), and CD4+ CAR-T cells were critical for effective early CD8+ CAR-T cell proliferation capacity in vitro (figure 3). Early CAR-T cells had significantly better in vivo tumor control compared to conventional CAR-T cells (Figure 4), this was associated with increased CAR-T cell persistence. Because chronically stimulated early-LeY-CAR-T cells expressed PD-1 (figure 2), and OVCAR-3 cells expressed PD-L1 when co-cultured with LeY-CAR-T cells (figure 5), we combined early LeY-CAR-T cells with anti-PD-1 therapy and observed complete tumour regression in these mice. Interestingly, early LeY-CAR-T cell plus anti-PD-1 treatment also enhanced the percentage of circulating stem-cell memory like CAR-T cells in vivo (figure 5).
Conclusions Our early CAR-T cells have better cytokine secretion and proliferation than conventional CAR-T cells. Early CAR-T cells also have superior anti-tumor efficacy in vivo, they have better persistence and maintain the circulating T cell memory pool. Importantly, low dose early-LeY-CAR-T cells combined with anti-PD1-treatment leads to complete clearance of LeY+ solid tumors in vivo. The early CAR-T cell production protocol is directly translatable for improving CAR-T cell efficacy in clinical trials for patients with solid tumors.
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