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
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.