Novel “Jantibody Fusion Protein” Cancer Vaccine Holds Promise Against Ovarian Cancer

A novel approach to cancer immunotherapy – strategies designed to induce the immune system to attack cancer cells – may provide a new and cost-effective weapon against some of the most deadly tumors, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

A novel approach to cancer immunotherapy – strategies designed to induce the immune system to attack cancer cells – may provide a new and cost-effective weapon against some of the most deadly tumors, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Investigators from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center (VIC) report in the Journal of Hematology & Oncology that a protein engineered to combine a molecule targeting a tumor-cell-surface antigen with another protein that stimulates several immune functions prolonged survival in animal models of both tumors.

“Some approaches to creating cancer vaccines begin by extracting a patient’s own immune cells, priming them with tumor antigens and returning them to the patient, a process that is complex and expensive,” says Mark Poznansky, M.D., Ph.D., director of the MGH Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center and senior author of the report. “Our study describes a very practical, potentially broadly applicable and low-cost approach that could be used by oncologists everywhere, not just in facilities able to harvest and handle patient’s cells.”

The MGH team’s vaccine stimulates the patient’s own dendritic cells, a type of immune cell that monitors an organism’s internal environment for the presence of viruses or bacteria, ingests and digests pathogens encountered, and displays antigens from those pathogens on their surface to direct the activity of other immune cells. As noted above, existing cancer vaccines that use dendritic cells require extracting cells from a patient’s blood, treating them with an engineered protein or nucleic acid that combines tumor antigens with immune-stimulating molecules, and returning the activated dendritic cells to the patient.

Fusion protein activates immune cells against tumors The Jantibody fusion protein, combining an antibody fragment targeting an antigen found on tumor cells with an immune-response-inducing protein (MTBhsp70), activates dendritic cells against several tumor antigens and induces a number of T-cell-based immune responses. (Jianping Yuan, PhD, MGH Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center)

Fusion protein activates immune cells against tumors. The Jantibody fusion protein, combining an antibody fragment targeting an antigen found on tumor cells with an immune-response-inducing protein (MTBhsp70), activates dendritic cells against several tumor antigens and induces a number of T-cell-based immune responses. (Jianping Yuan, PhD, MGH Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center)

The approach developed by the MGH team starts with the engineered protein, which in this case fuses an antibody fragment targeting a protein called mesothelin – expressed on the surface of such tumors as mesothelioma, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer – to a protein from the tuberculosis bacteria that stimulates the activity of dendritic and other immune cells. In this system, the dendritic cells are activated and targeted against tumor cells while remaining inside the patient’s body.

In the experiments described in the paper, the MGH team confirmed that their mesothelin-targeting fusion protein binds to mesothelin on either ovarian cancer or mesothelioma cells, activates dendritic cells, and enhances the cells’ processing and presentation of several different tumor antigens, inducing a number of T-cell-based immune responses. In mouse models of both tumors, treatment with the fusion protein significantly slowed tumor growth and extended survival, probably through the activity of cytotoxic CD8 T cells.

“Many patients with advanced cancers don’t have enough functioning immune cells to be harvested to make a vaccine, but our protein can be made in unlimited amounts to work with the immune cells patients have remaining,” explains study co-author Jeffrey Gelfand, MD, senior scientist at the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center. “We have created a potentially much less expensive approach to making a therapeutic cancer vaccine that, while targeting a single tumor antigen, generates an immune response against multiple antigens. Now if we can combine this with newly-described ways to remove the immune system’s “brakes” – regulatory functions that normally suppress persistent T-cell activity – the combination could dramatically enhance cancer immunotherapy.”

Poznansky adds that the tumors that might be treated with the mesothelin-targeting vaccine – ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer and mesothelioma – all have poor survival rates. “Immunotherapy is generally nontoxic, so this vaccine has the potential of safely extending survival and reducing the effects of these tumors, possibly even cutting the risk of recurrence. We believe that this approach could ultimately be used to target any type of cancer and are currently investigating an improved targeting approach using personalized antigens.” The MGH team just received a two-year grant from the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program to continue their research.

Poznansky is an associate professor of Medicine, and Gelfand is a clinical professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Jianping Yuan, Ph.D., of the MGH Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center (VIC) is the lead author of the Journal of Hematology and Oncology report. Additional co-authors include Pierre LeBlanc, Ph.D., Satoshi Kashiwagi M.D., Ph.D., Timothy Brauns, and Svetlana Korochkina, Ph.D., MGH VIC; and Nathalie Scholler, M.D., Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

The authors dedicate their report to Janet Gelfand, the wife of Jeffrey Gelfand, who died of ovarian cancer in 2006 and inspired their investigation. In her honor they named their tumor-targeting fusion protein “Jantibody.” Support for the study includes grants from the Edmund Lynch Jr. Cancer Fund, Arthur Luxenberg Esq., Perry Weitz Esq., the VIC Mesothelioma Research and Resource Program, and the Friends of VIC Fund.

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with an annual research budget of more than $775 million and major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer, computational and integrative biology, cutaneous biology, human genetics, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders, regenerative medicine, reproductive biology, systems biology, transplantation biology and photomedicine.

Sources:

  • Novel cancer vaccine holds promise against ovarian cancer, mesothelioma — Antigen-targeting fusion protein should be less expensive, more accessible than current approaches, Massachusetts General Hospital, Press Release, March 5, 2014.
  • Yuan J et al., A novel mycobacterial Hsp70-containing fusion protein targeting mesothelin augments antitumor immunity and prolongs survival in murine models of ovarian cancer and mesotheliomaJ Hematol Oncol. 2014 Feb 24;7(1):15. doi: 10.1186/1756-8722-7-15. (Abstract – PMID: 24565018; Full Text – PMCID: PMC3943805)

Trojan Horse* For Ovarian Cancer–Nanoparticles Turn Immune System Soldiers Against Tumor Cells

In a feat of trickery, Dartmouth Medical School immunologists have devised a Trojan horse to help overcome ovarian cancer, unleashing a surprise killer in the surroundings of a hard-to-treat tumor. Using nanoparticles–ultra small bits– the team has reprogrammed a protective cell that ovarian cancers have corrupted to feed their growth, turning the cells back from tumor friend to foe. Their research, published online July 13 for the August Journal of Clinical Investigation, offers a promising approach to orchestrate an attack against a cancer whose survival rates have barely budged over the last three decades …

Hanover, N.H.—In a feat of trickery, Dartmouth Medical School immunologists have devised a Trojan horse to help overcome ovarian cancer, unleashing a surprise killer in the surroundings of a hard-to-treat tumor.

Using nanoparticles–ultra small bits– the team has reprogrammed a protective cell that ovarian cancers have corrupted to feed their growth, turning the cells back from tumor friend to foe. Their research, published online July 13 for the August Journal of Clinical Investigation, offers a promising approach to orchestrate an attack against a cancer whose survival rates have barely budged over the last three decades.

Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia (right) with graduate student Juan Cubillos-Ruiz  (Photo Source:  Dartmouth Medical School News Release,

Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia (right) with graduate student Juan Cubillos-Ruiz (Photo Source: Dartmouth Medical School News Release, 13 Jul. 09)

“We have modulated elements of the tumor microenvironment that are not cancer cells, reversing their role as accomplices in tumor growth to attackers that boost responses against the tumor,” said Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology and of medicine, who led the research. “The cooperating cells hit by the particles return to fighters that immediately kill tumor cells.”

The study, in mice with established ovarian tumors, involves a polymer now in clinical trials for other tumors. The polymer interacts with a receptor that senses danger to activate cells that trigger an inflammatory immune response.

The Dartmouth work focuses on dendritic cells–an immune cell particularly abundant in the ovarian cancer environment. It does take direct aim at tumor cells, so it could be an amenable adjunct to other current therapies.

“The cooperating cells hit by the particles return to fighters that immediately kill tumor cells.” —Dr. Jose Conejo-Garcia

“That’s the beautiful part of story–people usually inject these nanoparticles to target tumor cells. But we found that these dendritic cells that are commonly present in ovarian cancer were preferentially and avidly engulfing the nanoparticles. We couldn’t find any tumor cells taking up the nanoparticles, only the dendritic cells residing in the tumor,” explained Juan R. Cubillos-Ruiz, graduate student and first author.

Dendritic cells are phagocytes–the soldiers of the immune system that gobble up bacteria and other pathogens, but ovarian cancer has co-opted them for its own use, he continued. “So we were trying to restore the attributes of these dendritic cells–the good guys; they become Trojan horses.”

Cancer is more than tumor cells; many other circulating cells including the dendritic phagocytes converge to occupy nearby space. The dendritic cells around ovarian cancer scoop up the nanocomplexes, composed of a polymer and small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules to silence their immunosuppressive activity.

Nanoparticle incorporation transforms them from an immunosuppressive to an immunostimulatory cell type at tumor locations, provoking anti-tumor responses and also directly killing tumor cells. The effect is particularly striking with an siRNA designed to silence the gene responsible for making an immune protein called PD-L.

The new findings also raise a warning flag about the use of gene silencing complexes in cancer treatment. Inflammation is a helpful immune response, but the researchers urge caution when using compounds that can enhance inflammation in a patient already weakened by cancer.

Ovarian cancer, which claims an estimated 15,000 US lives a year, is an accessible disease for nanoparticle delivery, according to the investigators. Instead of systemic administration, complexes can be put directly into the peritoneal cavity where the phagocytes take them up.

Samples of human ovarian cancer cells show similar responses to nanoparticle stimulation, the researchers observed, suggesting feasibility in the clinical setting. It could be part of a “multimodal approach,” against ovarian cancer, said Conejo-Garcia also a member of the Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center. “The prevailing treatment is surgical debulking, followed by chemotherapy. Our findings could complement those because they target not the tumor cells themselves, but different cells present around the tumor.”

Co-authors are Xavier Engle, Uciane K. Scarlett, Diana Martinez, Amorette Barber, Raul Elgueta, Li Wang, Yolanda Nesbeth and Charles Sentman of Dartmouth; Yvon Durant of University of New Hampshire, Andrew T Gewirtz of Emory, and Ross Kedl of University of Colorado.

The work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, including the National Cancer Institute and National Center for Research Resources, a Liz Tilberis Award from the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center Nanotechnology Group Award.

Read an interview of Jose Conejo – Garcia with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

Source: Trojan Horse for Ovarian Cancer–Nanoparticles Turn Immune System Soldiers against Tumor Cells, News Release, Dartmouth Medical School, July 13, 2009 (summarizing Cubillos-Ruiz JR, Engle X, Scarlett UK, et. al. Polyethylenimine-based siRNA nanocomplexes reprogram tumor-associated dendritic cells via TLR5 to elicit therapeutic antitumor immunity. J Clin Invest. 2009 Aug 3;119(8):2231-2244. doi: 10.1172/JCI37716. Epub 2009 Jul 13).

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* The Trojan Horse was a tale from the Trojan War, as told in Virgil’s Latin epic poem The Aeneid. The events in this story from the Bronze Age took place after Homer’s Iliad, and before Homer’s Odyssey. It was the strategy that allowed the Greeks finally to enter the city of Troy and end the conflict. In the best-known version, after a fruitless 10-year siege of Troy, the Greeks built a huge horse figure and hid a select force of men within it. The Greeks left the Horse at the city gates of Troy and pretended to sail away.  Thereafter, the Trojans pulled the Horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the Horse and opened the gates for the returning Greek army, which had sailed back to Troy under cover of night. The Greek army entered and destroyed the city, decisively ending the war. A “Trojan Horse” has come to mean any trick that causes a target to invite a foe into a securely protected bastion or place.