We have been exploring in preclinical models and clinical trials methods to reproducibly provide therapeutic T cell responses by transfer of genetically engineered T cells. Our largest clinical experience is in treating human Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). After identifying that WT1, a gene associated with promoting leukemic transformation, is over-expressed in human leukemic stem cells, and demonstrating in a clinical trial that in vitro expanded WT1-specific CD8 T cell clones can be safely transferred, exhibit anti-leukemic activity, and provide therapeutic benefit to AML patients, we extensively screened normal human repertoires and isolated a high affinity TCR specific for WT1 for genetically engineering CD8 T cells to reproducibly create cells with high avidity for leukemic cells. We have initially pursued this strategy in a 2 Arm trial for leukemia patients either at high risk of relapse (Arm 1) after hematopoietic cell transplant (HCT) or who have already relapsed after HCT (Arm 2). The prophylactic arm is now completed, with very encouraging results- all patients treated with engineered T cells remain alive and relapse free at a median of 38 months, compared to a relapse rate of ~50% in a concurrent matched cohort. Results in relapsed patients (Arm 2) have been less effective, and we have used high-dimensional analyses including single cell RNAseq both to elucidate the reasons for failure to eradicate the leukemia and to design strategies to overcome these obstacles. Our results have identified several mechanisms by which the leukemia escapes, and we have been testing approaches that employ further genetic modification of the T cells to enhance efficacy. The predominant reason for leukemia progression despite targeted therapy with T cells is the inability of the T cells to persist and maintain function in the context of encountering a rapidly proliferating myeloid leukemia. This reflects both engagement of pathways inhibitory to T cells by the leukemic cells, and apoptosis of the T cells from repetitive stimulation. We are addressing this issue by creating immuno-modulatory fusion proteins (IFPs) that have the ectodomain of an inhibitory or death receptor fused to a survival costimulatory domain. Results with two such IFPs will be discussed, a CD200R/CD28 fusion that binds the inhibitory ligand CD200 commonly expressed on leukemic cells but provides a CD28 costimulatory signal and a Fas/4-1BB fusion that binds FasL but rather than induce death promotes proliferation and survival. A more uncommon reason explaining progression is loss of expression of the WT1 epitope being targeted. This has occurred in 2 patients, but for distinct reasons. In one patient this reflected loss of a component of the immunoproteasome, and we have now isolated a TCR that recognizes an epitope not dependent on the immunoproteasome. In a second patient the level of WT1 expression declined- interestingly, this patient was treated with Vidaza, which can increase expression of WT1, and post-Vidaza the transferred T cells persisting in the patient’s bone marrow recognized and responded in vivo to the relapsing leukemia. The approaches and technologies we are developing and testing in leukemia are also applicable to solid tumors, and preclinical studies in pancreatic and ovarian cancers will be discussed.

Citation Format: Kristin G. Anderson, Dan Egan, Sunil R. Hingorani, Shannon K. Oda, Kelly Paulson, Rachel Perret, Leah Schmidt, Thomas Schmitt, Ingunn Stromnes, Aude Chapuis, Philip D. Greenberg. Utilizing synthetic biology and high-dimensional probing to address therapeutic obstacles and empower engineered T cells with the capacity to eradicate tumors [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the Fourth CRI-CIMT-EATI-AACR International Cancer Immunotherapy Conference: Translating Science into Survival; Sept 30-Oct 3, 2018; New York, NY. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Immunol Res 2019;7(2 Suppl):Abstract nr IA17.