T cell-engaging bispecific antibody constructs (TCEs) have the potential to engage all cytotoxic T cells for redirected cancer cell lysis, including CD8, CD4, gamma/delta, NKT and regulatory T cells. TCEs transiently connect T cells with target cells leading to formation of a cytolytic synapse. Once activated by TCEs, T cells can adopt a serial lysis mode and increase troop size by their local proliferation. In numerous animal models, TCEs can eradicate large tumors as single-agent therapy.

TCEs show a remarkable single-agent activity in hematological diseases, including ALL, NHL (DLBCL and FL) and AML. A CD19/CD3-bispecific TCE called blinatumomab (Blincyto) has been approved in 2014, and six other TCEs targeting CD20, BCMA and CD123 are in late-stage development. With complete response rates >50% and durability of responses, TCEs are in par with autologous CD19 CAR-T cells in NHL but are easier to manufacture and allow for a faster treatment start.

Treatment of solid tumor indications with TCEs is not as successful as treatment of blood-borne cancers. This may be due to issues with tumor penetration, the hostile tumor microenvironment and the scarcity of T cells in cold tumors. A variety of TCEs explore their single-agent activity against solid tumors by targeting surface antigen like PSMA, GPC3, GD2, or HER-2. Enhancements in the form of combination therapy with checkpoint inhibitors, or 4-1BB and CD28 agonists are being explored as ways of augmenting solid tumor activity of TCEs.

The first TCE showing robust anti-tumor activity in a solid tumor indication is targeting a gp100 peptide/MHC (developed by Immunocore). It is made from a soluble TCR fragment of very high affinity for the gp100 peptide HLA*0201 complex fused to an anti-CD3 scFv fragment. Although only few partial responses were observed in uveal melanoma patients, the single-agent treatment showed a very robust improvement in overall survival with a hazard ratio of 0.51 compared to investigators’ choice. This data will inspire the development of more TCEs that are specific for peptide/MHC complexes. This class of targets can also be addresses by TCR-mimetic antibodies. TCEs using such antibodies showed high anti-tumor activity in mouse models against MAGE-A4, p53 mutant or tyrosinase peptide/MHC complexes, all targets that are otherwise not amenable to classical TCEs.

Another emerging opportunity for treating cancers are conditional TCEs. These are infused as inactive precursors. Inside tumors, the locally produced proteases convert the precursors into highly active TCEs. One example is the so called ProTriTACs, where a half-life extending albumin-binding domain masks the CD3-binding domain. The mask confers a 500-fold reduction in the cytolytic activity of the TCE. Inside tumors, the mask is cleaved off and a TCE is activated that has a very short serum half-life once it is released from the tumor. Conditional TCEs promise not only a wider therapeutic index but can also leverage as targets tumor-associated antigens that are widely expressed on tumors but also on healthy normal tissues, such as EGFR or EpCAM/TROP1.

On-target toxicity of TCEs relates to the quality of target antigens. Finding more tumor-specific surface antigens, appropriate pMHC targets (e.g., mutant oncogene epitopes) and conditional T cell engagers are ways to address this challenge. Off-target toxicity of TCEs relates to T cell activation because of redirected target cell lysis. In the worst case, a cytokine release syndrome is induced. In the best case, a low-level cytokine release is contributing to the efficacy of TCEs. CRS can be managed by steroids, step dosing, anti-IL6 antibody and/or dasatinib. Another promising means is subcutaneous administration of TCEs. A dozen TCE programs currently explore this route, which allows reduction of Cmax and of the initial cytokine release.

TCEs will soon become a major weapon in the arsenal of cancer therapy. They will not only work in blood-borne cancers but will soon conquer select solid tumor indications. Peptide/MHC-targeting and conditional TCEs are very promising approaches to achieve solid tumor activity of TCEs.

Citation Format: Patrick A. Baeuerle. Bispecific T cell engagers (TCEs) for treatment of solid tumors: Challenges and opportunities [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR-NCI-EORTC Virtual International Conference on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics; 2021 Oct 7-10. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Mol Cancer Ther 2021;20(12 Suppl):Abstract nr IAP0301.