Research Article

CRISPR-engineered T cells in patients with refractory cancer

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Science  28 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6481, eaba7365
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba7365

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CRISPR takes first steps in humans

CRISPR-Cas9 is a revolutionary gene-editing technology that offers the potential to treat diseases such as cancer, but the effects of CRISPR in patients are currently unknown. Stadtmauer et al. report a phase 1 clinical trial to assess the safety and feasibility of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing in three patients with advanced cancer (see the Perspective by Hamilton and Doudna). They removed immune cells called T lymphocytes from patients and used CRISPR-Cas9 to disrupt three genes (TRAC, TRBC, and PDCD1) with the goal of improving antitumor immunity. A cancer-targeting transgene, NY-ESO-1, was also introduced to recognize tumors. The engineered cells were administered to patients and were well tolerated, with durable engraftment observed for the study duration. These encouraging observations pave the way for future trials to study CRISPR-engineered cancer immunotherapies.

Science, this issue p. eaba7365; see also p. 976

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

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.

RATIONALE

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.

RESULTS

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

CRISPR-Cas9 engineering of T cells in cancer patients.

T cells (center) were isolated from the blood of a patient with cancer. CRISPR-Cas9 ribonuclear protein complexes loaded with three sgRNAs were electroporated into the normal T cells, resulting in gene editing of the TRAC, TRBC1, TRBC2, and PDCD1 (encoding PD-1) loci. The cells were then transduced with a lentiviral vector to express a TCR specific for the cancer-testis antigens NY-ESO-1 and LAGE-1 (right). The engineered T cells were then returned to the patient by intravenous infusion, and patients were monitored to determine safety and feasibility. PAM, protospacer adjacent motif.

Abstract

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing provides a powerful tool to enhance the natural ability of human T cells to fight cancer. We report a first-in-human phase 1 clinical trial to test the safety and feasibility of multiplex CRISPR-Cas9 editing to engineer T cells in three patients with refractory cancer. Two genes encoding the endogenous T cell receptor (TCR) chains, TCRα (TRAC) and TCRβ (TRBC), were deleted in T cells to reduce TCR mispairing and to enhance the expression of a synthetic, cancer-specific TCR transgene (NY-ESO-1). Removal of a third gene encoding programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1; PDCD1), was performed to improve antitumor immunity. Adoptive transfer of engineered T cells into patients resulted in durable engraftment with edits at all three genomic loci. Although chromosomal translocations were detected, the frequency decreased over time. Modified T cells persisted for up to 9 months, suggesting that immunogenicity is minimal under these conditions and demonstrating the feasibility of CRISPR gene editing for cancer immunotherapy.

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