Cancerous tissues harbor protein mutations that can be recognized by immune system as neoantigens. However, when tumor progresses it indicates that either (A) patient lacks T cells with adequate affinity to tumor neoantigens or (B) tumor environment actively suppresses immune response [or both].
For example, novel drug class of checkpoint inhibitors targeting CTLA4 and PD1/PD-L1 inhibitory circuits operating in T cells (Keytruda, Opdivo, Yervoy, Tecentriq) work on option B by modulating tumor suppressive micro-environment.
Another approach obviously would be an option A by using engineered T cells expressing tumor specific T cell receptors. Ideally, patient's own T cells can be expanded and re-infused back to attack tumor cells. But, more likely, patient will lack T cells with adequate affinity to tumor neoantigens due to TCR editing.
To overcome this limitation, new study published in journal Science suggested to use instead tumor-specific TCRs harvested from healthy donors. Here, the authors led by T cell expert Ton Schumacher, showed that HLA-matched healthy donors contain T cells with sufficient affinity and specificity to recipient's tumor neoantigens (of note, Ton Schumacher is also affiliated with biotech company Kite Pharma).
This study focused on HLA-A*02:01-restricted neoantigens from stage IV melanoma patients. Neoantigens were identified with whole-exome and RNA sequencing and selected for further analysis based on high predicted binding affinity to HLA-A*02:01. Autologous monocyte-derived dendritic cells transfected with mRNA encoding the candidate epitopes and cultured with healthy donor T cells. All 4 healthy donor T cells specifically detected mutated tumor neoantigens with greater sensitivity.
Tumor neoantigen-specific T cell response was confirmed in epitope pulse experiment using WT or mut epitopes.
Furthermore, when donor T cell derived TCRs were re-introduced by gene transfer, resulting T cells were specific to patient's mut neoantigen and did not recognize, for example, 3rd party tumor cells.
In summary, this short but definitive study points to a growing and undeniable evidence in support for T cell based cancer immunotherapy. By incorporating donor derived TCR specificity this strategy vastly expands the reach of T cells immunotherapy. The challenge remains how to streamline this process (exome sequencing, MHC:peptide binding prediction, TCR identification, TCR transduction and re-infusion) to make it affordable for every cancer patient.