Production and characterization of virus-free, CRISPR-CAR T cells capable of inducing solid tumor regression

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Abstract

Background: Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells have demonstrated high clinical response rates against hematological malignancies (e.g., CD19+ cancers) but have shown limited activity in patients with solid tumors. Recent work showed that precise insertion of a CAR at a defined locus improves treatment outcomes in the context of a CD19 CAR; however, it is unclear if such a strategy could also affect outcomes in solid tumors. Furthermore, CAR manufacturing generally relies on viral vectors for gene delivery, which comprise a complex and resource-intensive part of the manufacturing supply chain. Methods: Anti-GD2 CAR T cells were generated using CRISPR/Cas9 within 9 days using recombinant Cas9 protein and nucleic acids, without any viral vectors. The CAR was specifically targeted to the T cell receptor alpha constant gene (TRAC). T cell products were characterized at the level of the genome, transcriptome, proteome, and secretome using CHANGE-seq, targeted next-generation sequencing, scRNA-seq, spectral cytometry, and ELISA assays, respectively. Functionality was evaluated in vivo in an NSG™ xenograft neuroblastoma model. Results: In comparison to retroviral CAR T cells, virus-free CRISPR CAR (VFC-CAR) T cells exhibit TRAC-targeted genomic integration of the CAR transgene, elevation of transcriptional and protein characteristics associated with a memory-like phenotype, and low tonic signaling prior to infusion arising in part from the knockout of the T cell receptor. On exposure to the GD2 target antigen, anti-GD2 VFC-CAR T cells exhibit specific cytotoxicity against GD2+ cells in vitro and induce solid tumor regression in vivo. VFC-CAR T cells demonstrate robust homing and persistence and decreased exhaustion relative to retroviral CAR T cells against a human neuroblastoma xenograft model. Conclusions: This study leverages virus-free genome editing technology to generate CAR T cells featuring a TRAC-targeted CAR, which could inform manufacturing of CAR T cells to treat cancers, including solid tumors.

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Mueller, K. P., Piscopo, N. J., Forsberg, M. H., Saraspe, L. A., Das, A., Russell, B., … Saha, K. (2022). Production and characterization of virus-free, CRISPR-CAR T cells capable of inducing solid tumor regression. Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, 10(9). https://doi.org/10.1136/jitc-2021-004446

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