It is now accepted that our immune system is capable of mounting an attack against cancer. However, tumors have devised ways to elude detection and to render tumor reactive or “effector” T cells indolent. Cancer immunotherapies such as adoptive T cell transfer (ACT) seek to reinvigorate and reinforce tumor-reactive cells so that they can effectively target tumor.

In ACT therapy, exhausted T cells in the vicinity of a tumor are harvested; expanded, conditioned, and sometimes genetically reengineered to better recognize and target the tumor; and then reinfused. T cell growth factors, such as interleukin (IL) 2 and IL-15, are often administered to promote proliferation of the reinfused T cells that have been trained to target the patient’s tumor. IL-15 is a more recently discovered cytokine and seems to promise some advantages over IL-2, which is toxic at therapeutic doses and which can stimulate regulatory T cells that blunt the effect of effector T cells.  One limitation of translating this therapy to the clinic is that preconditioning with chemotherapy or radiation is required for best results. Chemotherapy and radiation are expensive, associated with substantial adverse effects, and require hospital admission.T cells expressing IL-2 receptor alpha outcompete host cells for IL-2

In an article published in the October 28, 2015 issue of Science Translational Medicine, senior author Mark P. Rubinstein, Ph.D., and his colleagues in the Department of Surgery and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina and his collaborators at the University of California San Diego report the surprising finding that curative responses were achieved with ACT in a mouse model of melanoma without lymphodepletion when IL-2 but not IL-15 was co-administered. These findings are important because they suggest that low-dose IL-2 could be used as an alternative to chemotherapy and radiation as a preconditioning regimen for ACT therapy.

Host cells are thought to outcompete the reinfused or “donor” cells for T cell growth factors such as IL-2 and IL-15. Chemotherapy and radiation knock down the number of host cells so that the donor cells can more effectively compete for IL-2 or IL-15.  Rubinstein and his colleagues found that curative responses were achieved with IL-2 without lymphodepletion when the effector T cells were engineered to express elevated levels of IL-2 receptor alpha (IL-2R?). The presence of IL-2R? on the surface of the effector T cells enabled them to outcompete host cells for IL-2. This suggests that, if the effector T cells harvested from patients are engineered to express high levels of IL-2R?, then low doses of IL-2 may be adequate to achieve significant clinical response, making preconditioning with chemotherapy or radiation unnecessary.

The study authors also describe a novel mechanism that helps account for the ability of IL-2 to mediate curative responses in the absence of chemotherapy or radiation. They found that, in T cells expressing IL-2R?, IL-2 does not degrade as expected after being taken up by the effector T cell. Instead, IL-2R? rescues IL-2 from being degraded, thereby enabling IL-2 to be recycled so it can continue to optimize effector T cell response. “The ability of IL-2R? to sustain IL-2 signaling provides a molecular mechanism to explain how IL-2 therapy may be particularly useful clinically,” says Rubinstein. “This mechanism could provide a novel way to enhance the tumor-killing potential of T cells transferred to patients in the absence of prior chemotherapy or radiation.”

 The lead researchers in the Rubinstein laboratory for this study were Ee Wern Su, Ph.D.,and Caitiln Moore. Ms. Moore is currently in medical school at MUSC. For a complete list of authors, please view the article's abstract.