Experts Explore ‘Off-the-Shelf’ Immunotherapy Treatments

March 5, 2021
Aislinn Antrim, Associate Editor

New protein-based immunotherapies could stimulate patients’ immune systems without needing to engineer T cells on an individual basis.

A new commentary published in Science proposes that emerging protein-based immunotherapies could lead to highly effective “off-the-shelf” cancer treatments that could be used in multiple patients, unlike current personalized treatments.

Immunotherapy is a developing alternative to traditional treatments and is designed to stimulate a person’s immune system to fight the disease. Jon Weidanz, a professor in the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) College of Nursing and Health Innovation and author of the perspective, evaluated the findings of 3 studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. He argues that the new protein-based immunotherapy that targets commonly occurring mutations in cancer cells could lead to effective treatments.

“Up until recently, patients were limited to 4 treatment options: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy,” Weidanz said in a press release. “However, the holy grail has always been to develop strategies that would harness the power of the immune system to attack and destroy the cancer. With recent breakthroughs in immuno-oncology along with the new findings being published in Science, it does appear we are closing in on cancer with new immunotherapies.”

Immunologists have discovered new ways to engineer a patient’s T cells to recognize and target cancer cells and eliminate them from the body. According to the study, this approach has led to exciting advances in the field and remission in some patients. However, more work is needed to make this form of T-cell therapy more accessible.

Alternatively, researchers have also developed approaches that stimulate the immune system without removing T cells from the body. These “off-the-shelf” protein-based treatments, called bispecific T-cell engaging antibodies, have been shown to be effective in patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“The ideal is to create protein molecules that have 2 arms,” Weidanz said. “One arm can recognize the cancer cell and bind to it. The other arm binds to T-cells. The protein drug then brings the T-cells into proximity with the tumor cells, which activate the T-cells to destroy the tumor cells.”

These bispecific proteins would avoid healthy cells while destroying the cancer cells. Weidanz posits that this method of immunotherapy could make a significant difference in cancer treatments. The key is the unique targets expressed by the cancer cells that the bispecific protein drug recognizes, according to Weidanz.

“The beauty of bispecific proteins is that you could manufacture those proteins and put them on the shelf as an immunotherapy agent,” Weidanz said in the press release. “If a doctor sees that a patient’s cancer expresses the neoantigen target, they could be treated immediately. It’s still a personalized medicine but would not require engineering T-cells.”

Weidanz’s lab at UTA is investigating how the immune system identifies malignant cells with the goal of designing treatments that boost immune cells’ ability to destroy cancerous cells. In the press release, Weidanz said immunotherapy holds the promise of transforming cancer into a more manageable condition with better prognoses.

“We are getting to a point where we will be able to make cancer more of a chronic disease,” he said in the news release. “Now, we look at 5-year survival. Maybe we can start looking at 15- or 20-year survival readouts because we’re able to manage the disease with immunotherapies that are being developed. It’s a very exciting time.”

REFERENCE
Future of immunotherapy could be ‘off-the-shelf’ treatments [news release]. University of Texas at Arlington; March 1, 2021. https://www.uta.edu/news/news-releases/2021/03/01/future-of-immunotherapy. Accessed March 4, 2021.