The emerging field of synthetic biology—designing new biological components and systems—is revolutionising medicine. Through the genetic programming of living cells, researchers are creating engineered systems that intelligently sense and respond to diverse environments, leading to more specific and effective solutions compared to current molecular-based therapeutics.
Simultaneously, cancer immunotherapy—using the body’s immune defences to fight cancer—has transformed cancer treatment during the past decade, but only a handful of solid tumours have responded, and systemic therapy often results in significant side effects. Designing therapies that can induce a potent, anti-tumour immune response within a solid tumour without triggering systemic toxicity has posed a significant challenge.
Researchers at Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Irving Medical Centre (CUIMC) recently announced that they are addressing this challenge by engineering a strain of non-pathogenic bacteria that can colonise solid tumours in mice and safely deliver potent immunotherapies, acting as a “Trojan Horse” that treats tumours from within. The therapy led not only to complete tumour regression in a mouse model of lymphoma, but also a significant control of distant, un-injected tumour lesions. Their findings are published in Nature Medicine.
“Seeing untreated tumours respond alongside the treatment of primary lesions was an unexpected discovery. It is the first demonstration following a bacterial cancer therapy of what is termed an ‘abscopal’ effect,” Tal Danino, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, said.
“This means that we’ll be able to engineer bacteria to prime tumours locally, and then stimulate the immune system to seek out tumours and metastases that are too small to be detected with imaging or other approaches,” he added.
The study was led in collaboration with Nicholas Arpaia, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the CUIMC and co-senior author of the publication.
The team combined their expertise in synthetic biology and immunology to engineer a strain of bacteria able to grow and multiply in the necrotic core of tumours. When bacteria numbers reach a critical threshold, the non-pathogenic Escherichia coli are then programmed to self-destruct, allowing for an effective release of therapeutics and preventing them from wreaking havoc elsewhere in the body.
Subsequently, a small fraction of bacteria survives lysis and reseeds the population, allowing for repeated rounds of drug delivery inside treated tumours. The proof of the concept in programming the bacteria in this way was originally developed a few years ago (Din & Danino et al Nature 2016). In the current study, the authors chose to release a nano-body that targets a protein called CD47.
CD47, a “don’t-eat-me” signal, protects cancer cells from being eaten by innate immune cells such as macrophages and dendritic cells. It is found in abundance in a majority of human solid tumours and has recently become a popular therapeutic target.
“But CD47 is present elsewhere in the body, and systemic targeting of CD47 results in significant toxicity as evidenced by recent clinical trials. To solve this issue, we engineered bacteria to exclusively target CD47 within the tumour and avoid systemic side-effects of treatment,” adds Sreyan Chowdhury, the paper’s lead author and a PhD student co-mentored by Arpaia and Danino.
The combined effect of bacterially induced local inflammation within the tumour and the blockade of CD47 leads to increased ingestion, or phagocytosis of tumour cells and subsequently to enhanced activation and proliferation of T cells within the treated tumours. The team found that treatment with their engineered bacteria not only cleared the treated tumours but also reduced the incidence of tumour metastasis in multiple models.
“Treatment with engineered bacteria led to the priming of tumour-specific T cells in the tumour that then migrated systemically to also treat distant tumours,” Arpaia noted, adding that, “without both live bugs lysing in the tumour and the CD47 nano-body payload, we were not able to observe the therapeutic or abscopal effects.”