Leveraging TCR reactivity using viruses and vaccines to improve CAR T therapy

T cells patrol the body using their T cell receptors (TCR) to look for cells which display evidence of intracellular pathogens or cancers. In order to focus their attention on specific cancer antigens, T cells can be engineered to express an artificial recognition receptor (termed a Chimeric Antigen Receptor or CAR). CAR technology has been shown to be extremely powerful clinically in leukaemia and lymphoma patients who have not responded to other lines of therapy, leading to recent FDA and Health Canada approvals.

However, only one third of lymphoma patients treated with CD19 specific CAR T cells exhibit long lasting curative responses, thus leaving significant room for improvement. CAR T failure can usually be attributed to either loss of the tumour antigen (ie CD19) or to dysfunction of the T cells, and we are developing a strategy to address the latter. Once T cells express a CAR, they can still receive signals through their TCR, and we have shown in preliminary experiments that this type of stimulation can help CAR T cells to proliferate and kill tumour cells. Our research will use oncolytic cancer killing viruses, and other vaccines, to help mobilize CAR T cells which recognize viral antigens using their TCR.

Creative knowledge translation to support BCC’s Personalized OncoGenomics Program


  • Marco Marra
    BC Cancer

Team members: 

  • Jessica Nelson
    Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre
  • Lindsay Zibrik
    BC Cancer – Vancouver
  • Kirstin Brown
    Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre
  • Kevin Sauve
    Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre

The Personalized Oncogenomics (POG) program at BCC is a patient-driven clinical research project which uses genome sequencing to inform cancer treatment and care. Delivery of the POG program involves a diverse group of stakeholders, all with varying health literacy levels. To close the literacy gap, POG must explore new knowledge translation channels to improve health literacy and education.

Knowledge translation is becoming increasingly common in clinical practice. Best practices recommend the use of lay language and to present material in popular, engaging and creative formats such as video and online content to reach and engage a large audience. Research suggests one of the most effective methods is through animated videos (Meppelink et al., 2015; George et al., 2013).

The goal for this project is to develop a short, patient- and public-focused animated video about the POG program and to showcase the video to our knowledge users  in a web-based format. Outcomes include improved awareness about the POG program, improved health literacy for patients considering POG or healthcare professionals new to POG, and improved understanding of how POG supports and enhances patient care in BC.

The molecular dissection of aggressive B-cell lymphoma

Aggressive B-cell lymphomas are the most common form of lymphoma and ~50% of patients are cured with modern treatments. However, the outcomes for patients whose disease is not cured are dismal with ~10% of those patients alive at 5 years. This shows that these lymphomas, although grouped together on the basis of what they look like down the microscope, represent clusters of different lymphoma groups. A better understanding of the 'molecular wiring'of these lymphomas is critical to identify patients at high risk of resistant lymphoma and providing better treatments.

This project will provide a rational new way to group lymphomas based on differences in the molecular wiring. This will be acheived by performing and analysing genomic sequencing on a large number of aggressive B-cell lymphomas brought together through an international lymphoma consortium. Further, tumour samples will be analysed from the time of diagnosis and when the lymphoma relapses to see whether this molecular wiring remains stable or changes with treatment. It is anticipated that this major step forward in our knowledge will be translated into new tools for matching a patient's lymphoma to the correct treatment and improving patient outcomes. 

Predictors of immunotherapy benefit in patients with microsatellite stable metastatic colorectal cancer

Introduction: Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second most common cancer. Once metastatic, patients are generally incurable and receive treatment to prolong survival. Immunotherapies use a patient's immune system to attack their cancer. These treatments are effective in CRC patients with microsatellite instability (MSI). Unfortunately, 95% of patients lack MSI and are called microsatellite stable (MSS). This group usually doesn't respond to immunotherapy and we need to explore why.

Specific Aims:  

We aim to identify:

  1. why some MSS patients benefit from immunotherapy, and  
  2. what can we target to activate immune cells in patients who don't respond to immunotherapy.  

Methods: We will investigate how the immune system and tumors interact in patients from two clinical trials. These trials evaluated immunotherapy in MSS CRC. Blood and tumor samples from these trials will be tested to identify features that predict response. These results will then guide the creation of new clinical trials with immunotherapy for CRC using our findings.  

Significance: Immunotherapy does not work for the 95% of CRC patients who are MSS. We will identify how to activate the immune system in CRC patients with MSS so they too can benefit from immunotherapy.   

Identification of IL1RAP as a novel oncoprotein and therapeutic target in Ewing sarcoma

Ewing Sarcoma (EWS) is an aggressive form of childhood cancer that occurs on bone and soft tissue. Although conventional cancer therapeutic strategies, such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, have improved survival in patients with localized EWS tumours, they are ineffective for patients with metastatic disease. In addition, conventional chemotherapy is often toxic and carcinogenic, which carries short- and long-term toxicities. In the past few years, immunotherapy has been promoted as an effective means to prolong survival or eliminate tumor cells in patients with specific cancers.

However, effective immunotherapeutic strategies for EWS have not yet been described. Identification of highly specific cell surface markers of tumor cells is critical for developing targeted immunotherapy strategies. We have identified IL1RAP (Interleukin 1 receptor accessory protein) as a cell surface protein that is highly expressed in EWS in comparison to normal tissues/organs, and that is important for tumorigenesis in this disease. In this project, we aim to develop immunotherapeutic strategies by targeting IL1RAP in human EWS, while also delineating the key mechanisms mediating the tumor-promoting function of this protein.

Defining mechanisms of lineage transformation in lung cancer to combat resistance to targeted therapies

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in Canada. A major reason for the poor prognosis is the lack of effective drugs for treating advanced tumours.

New understanding of the mutations driving lung cancer has led to the development of targeted therapies that selectively inhibit mutated genes, leading to rapid cancer regression in specific subsets of patients. However, while these therapies improve patient survival and quality of life, they are not curative as all patients develop drug resistance.

While some causes behind this resistance have been defined, others remain elusive, and are becoming more prominent with newer generations of drugs. A major example is tumours changing how they look—shifting from one type of lung cancer to another—but what causes this is still not clear.

Dr. Inoue’s research will test whether treatment with targeted therapies creates the environment that allows tumours to “change their skin” and continue to grow in the presence of drugs. The goal is to determine the genes involved in this shift and prove they are responsible for drug resistance. This will lead to new therapeutic strategies that will provide longer-term survival benefits for lung cancer patients.